FRESNO, Calif. -- Eight California prison guards were acquitted of charges that they subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment by arranging gladiator-style fights among the inmates.
After a nine-week trial, the jury deliberated just six hours Friday before clearing the guards.
The charges were brought after two 1994 fights at Corcoran State Prison were exposed by two guards who blew the whistle on colleagues after one inmate was fatally shot.
One guard's lawyer yelled, ''All right!'' and slammed his fist on a table when the verdict was read. Some family members sobbed with relief.
Four guards could have faced possible life sentences; the others up to 10 years behind bars.
''Part of me is going to be very bitter for a long time,'' said Sgt. Truman Jennings, one of the guards charged with lesser offenses. ''I think that anybody that sat through this trial every day like I did knew I shouldn't have been here. The government attorneys had an agenda and they were never interested in the truth.''
Defense lawyers argued that guards did not set up any fights. They said fights erupted when inmates of different ethnic and geographic backgrounds were forced to exercise together in the prison's highest-security unit, as part of a since-rescinded ''integrated yard'' policy.
In an attempt to wound a fighting prisoner, officer Christopher Bethea fired a round from his 9mm rifle that struck inmate Preston Tate in the head and killed him.
A key prosecution witness, inmate Anthony James, testified that Bethea bragged moments before the fight broke out that it was ''duck hunting season.''
Tate's death led to an $825,000 settlement for his family and also brought about key policy changes at California prisons.
The Department of Corrections also revised its policy on the use of deadly force, which had resulted in seven inmate deaths at Corcoran and dozens of injuries during prison yard fights from 1989 to 1994.
Since the allegations surfaced against the eight guards, not one Corcoran prisoner has been shot.
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