A Cumberland County Jail guard has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges stemming from an alleged assault on an incarcerated man last year.

Vinal Thompson, 41, had been on paid administrative leave for more than a year when a grand jury indicted him in July. He is charged with one felony count of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon – in this case, handcuffs. He also faces two misdemeanor charges of assault and reckless conduct.

He appeared at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland on Thursday morning and entered his not guilty pleas during a brief hearing.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorney Bruce Merrill said he wasn’t prepared to comment on the charges yet.

“We haven’t seen any discovery in this case,” he said.

The Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case because Thompson is an employee of Cumberland County. Assistant District Attorney Kate Bozeman requested Thompson be booked at a county jail but remain out of custody on personal recognizance, and the judge agreed. Under his bail conditions, Thompson is prohibited from having contact with the alleged victim and from possessing weapons.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce requested the criminal investigation last year after he saw video footage of the confrontation between the two men in July 2020. His office denied a public records request last year by the Portland Press Herald to release the surveillance footage, citing an exemption for intelligence and investigative information that is not considered public. But the sheriff provided basic details about the incident.

He said the altercation took place at 8:20 a.m. on July 7 during the part of the day when people in custody receive their medication under supervision. One inmate “started to create a disturbance.” Thompson approached the man and tried to handcuff him to remove him from the pod, but the man 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 the news release last year.

The two went to the floor and down two steps to a lower level. Joyce said the man was not handcuffed during the struggle. Another guard intervened, and both the inmate and the guard went to the hospital for medical treatment.

The news release did not name the alleged victim. However, John Katula said in an interview and in a federal lawsuit that he suffered a broken nose and needed surgery. He later settled his case against Thompson and the county for $41,000. Katula was held at the time on felony charges for trafficking, importing and possessing methamphetamine. That case is still pending, but he is not listed as being in custody at the Cumberland County Jail.

Thompson made roughly $50,000 per year. Joyce said last month that he was still on leave with pay, and an internal investigation into the incident would begin now that criminal charges had been filed. An executive assistant in the sheriff’s office said Thursday that Thompson is now on leave without pay.

The court scheduled a dispositional conference for Jan. 12.

Note – This article was updated Monday, Aug. 9, to correct references to Vinal Thompson’s administrative leave. He was on paid administrative leave for more than a year. Between his indictment and his arraignment, his status changed to unpaid. 

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