NEW YORK (AP) — An animated former New York Gov. George Pataki shook his head repeatedly as he was accused at a civil trial Tuesday of abusing his power eight years ago by ordering prisoners moved to psychiatric facilities without hearings.
Pataki made clear through his expressions during opening statements that he strongly disagrees with lawyers for six men who claimed in a lawsuit that their rights were violated by Pataki and other officials, including prison authorities and the head of a Manhattan psychiatric center. Pataki nodded his head as his lawyer insisted that he acted honorably.
The lawsuit seeking tens of millions of dollars in damages was filed after Pataki announced in October 2005 that every sexually violent predator would be evaluated for involuntary civil commitment once that person was released from prison. He did so after a recently-paroled sex offender killed a woman in June 2005 in a White Plains shopping mall parking lot.
The program was discontinued in November 2006 after a state court ruled that the state was wrongly confining convicted sex offenders in psychiatric facilities.
Attorney Ameer Benno said some plaintiffs were taken from prison to psychiatric facilities just before they were to be freed, including a man one day from completing a 25-year prison sentence.
"Before our government takes our liberty, ... we have a right to be heard," he told jurors. "It's called due process."
He accused Pataki of abusing his power to order the evaluations of soon-to-be-released prisoners because he failed for seven years to get the state Legislature to act on the issue.
"Frustrated by the inaction of the Legislature, he took matters into his own hands," Benno said. "That's a tremendous amount of power to have in one's hands, especially when someone's liberty was to be taken away."
Benno said the defendants possessed positions of authority, titles and power.
"Each and every one of them could have said no. Instead they said go," Benno said. "They still don't accept responsibility for what they did and that's why we're here."
Barbara Hathaway, a lawyer for the state, said the inmates ended up where they belonged and no harm occurred.
"This case is about protecting the public and getting these plaintiffs the treatment they needed," she said. "This is truly a case of no harm, no foul."
Abbe Lowell, Pataki's lawyer, said New York's three-term governor from 1995 through 2006 was merely trying to deliver on a priority to protect public safety at a time when New York State was the sixth most violent state in the country.
He said Pataki knew nothing of the individuals who filed the lawsuit.
"You shouldn't even give them a dollar," he said.
Prior to the start of openings, U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff said the jury must decide whether the defendants can be held liable for an initiative that was not legal.
"No one can argue that the initiative complied with law," he said. "It did not."
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year ruled that Pataki and other defendants were not entitled to immunity in the case.
It said a reasonable official would have known that the process by which men were committed did not satisfy basic constitutional requirements.
As part of the program, three separate medical professionals evaluated each person before they were involuntarily committed, with fewer than 20 percent of those evaluated being ultimately committed.
Treatments sometimes included the use of a "penile plethysmograph" that gauged the responses of each person's genitals to sexually explicit pictures displayed to determine his sexual arousal patterns.
Pataki will testify later in the trial.