A former inmate at the Cumberland County Jail who was punched in the face by a corrections officer in July is suing the county, the sheriff and the officer who struck him.

Meanwhile, a criminal investigation is still underway to determine if charges are warranted against the officer, and a district attorney could decide soon whether to pursue charges.

John Katula was being held at Cumberland County Jail in July on an aggravated drug trafficking charge when he said he was punched in the face multiple times and tackled by corrections officer Vinal Thompson.

Katula filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland this week, alleging that Thompson used excessive force when he struck Katula. Katula suffered a broken nose and needed surgery to correct the injuries.

The interaction was captured on closed-circuit surveillance cameras, but the county denied a public records request by the Portland Press Herald to release the footage publicly, citing an exemption for intelligence and investigative information that is not considered public.

Thompson has been on paid administrative leave since the July 7 incident. Sheriff Kevin Joyce requested a criminal investigation after watching video of the interaction.


“I’m very disappointed in what I saw,” Joyce said at the time. “I’ll leave it at that.”

The office of Androscoggin County District Attorney Andrew Robinson has been assigned the case, and in recent weeks, prosecutors have asked Portland police detectives to gather more information, said Portland police Lt. Robert Martin.

The case has been handed back and forth a couple of times between the DA and investigators, which is not uncommon, Martin said, but there has been no decision yet by Robinson’s office whether to charge Thompson.

The civil lawsuit was filed on behalf of Katula by Portland attorney Michael Waxman. The complaint does not identify how much compensation Katula is seeking. Waxman said he filed the lawsuit after negotiations with the county over a potential out-of-court settlement broke down, but Waxman declined to say how much compensation he had sought during the negotiation process.

Waxman said the county and its insurer, which is a division of the Maine County Commissioners Association, have decided not to represent Thompson in the case, meaning Thompson could be personally responsible for hiring his own attorney to defend the suit and for paying any damages a judge or jury awards.

“It’s never happened to me in three decades where an insurance company said, ‘you know what, we’re not defending him,’ ” Waxman said. “And I’m flummoxed by it.”


Katula was not officially sanctioned by the jail for a rules violation, Waxman said. But in a phone interview this summer after the incident, Katula told a reporter he was placed in a maximum security segregation unit after the confrontation.

Katula was then transferred to Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset.

William Doyle, the regional director for the National Correctional Employee Union, said municipalities from time to time decline to defend employees. Doyle also said the video is not as clear as Joyce portrays it to be, and that Katula put his hands on Thompson first. Doyle declined to say whether Thompson’s reaction and use of force was appropriate, saying it was not up to the union to make those determinations.

Doyle was critical of Joyce for commenting on the video, and also was critical of Joyce’s decision to deny a request to return Thompson to duty before the criminal investigation concludes. Doyle said jail staff currently face regular forced overtime shifts because of 38 open corrections officer positions. Thompson would help alleviate some of that need, but Joyce rebuffed the request, Doyle said.

Even if Thompson does not face criminal charges, he still faces an internal review by staff at the sheriff’s office in which he could face disciplinary measures or termination. The administrative review of Thompson’s actions has been on hold pending the conclusion of the criminal investigation, Doyle said.

Bruce Merrill, a Portland-based attorney who represents Thompson, did not return a message seeking an interview. Thompson also did not respond to a request for an interview left with a family member.


Attorneys Peter Marchesi, who represents the county in the civil lawsuit, and attorney Malcolm Ulmert, who represents the county’s insurer, the Maine County Commissioners Association’s risk pool, did not respond to requests for interviews about Katula’s lawsuit.

Joyce said the incident took place at 8:20 a.m. during the part of the day when inmates receive their medication under supervision. He said one inmate “started to create a disturbance.” Thompson approached the inmate and tried to handcuff him to remove him from the pod, but the inmate started to back up and held his hands up as if to refuse the handcuffs.

“Officer Thompson immediately began to punch the inmate in the face, and they both began to scuffle,” Joyce said in a news release.

The two went down to the floor and two steps to a lower level. Joyce said the inmate was not handcuffed during the struggle. Another guard intervened. Both the inmate and the guard received medical treatment at the hospital.

Joyce said the video does not have sound, so he isn’t sure what was said before or during the confrontation. The incident will be investigated by both the police and internal staff.

“There’s a lot of questions,” Joyce said.

Note: The article was updated April 22, 2021 to correct the name of the county’s insurance risk pool. It is the Maine County Commissioners Association. 

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