- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 17, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa officials illegally removed an administrative law judge after he raised doubts about the disciplinary case against an inmate accused of participating in a gang rape, a federal court has ruled.

Iowa Department of Corrections administrators removed William Soupene from the 2010 hearing for inmate Joe Byrd after Soupene said he was considering dismissing the case due to a lack of evidence. They transferred the case to another judge who had already convicted four other inmates in the attack, and he promptly convicted Byrd. Byrd was sentenced to 365 days of segregation and 365 days of lost earned time for an alleged rape that he says never happened.

U.S. District Judge Edward McManus ruled last month that the department’s interference violated Byrd’s due process rights, and he ordered a new hearing. He said the department doesn’t have the power to change judges “in the middle of the case if it does not like where the current one is headed,” comparing it to a card player who requests another deal after receiving an unfavorable hand.

Soupene, who was the department’s senior judge and trained other judges, said it was the only time he was removed during a 42-year career in which he handled 100,000 cases. He called it “a big-time screwup” and a miscarriage of prison justice.

“A decision was made that they would go judge-shopping and find somebody that was more likely to agree with the investigation,” said Soupene, now retired.

It’s not the first time the department has interfered with administrative law judges, who are legally required to be independent. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a warden had pressured a judge to punish an inmate accused of assaulting a correctional officer, a case uncovered by Iowa Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider’s office. Prison judges work for the agency that they regulate, unlike other administrative judges employed by the Division of Inspections and Appeals.

“Structurally, it is not the best in terms of creating independence and the appearance of impartiality,” Cooperrider said.

The department declined to comment. Its lawyers argued that the agency has the power to reassign judges and that Byrd’s rights weren’t violated because the second judge wasn’t biased.

An inmate accused Byrd, who is serving time for robbery, and four others of raping him at the Newton Correctional Facility in 2009.

Byrd was transferred in 2010 to the Anamosa State Penitentiary, where Soupene had considered alleged inmate rule violations since 1998. Soupene said he found the confidential investigative materials in Byrd’s case “remarkable in that I did not believe that there was any evidence to support the allegation.”

“The victim did not appear to be credible,” he wrote in a legal affidavit.

Soupene called the Newton prison and department headquarters to request a statement from the investigator “as to why he found the informant and allegation credible.” He warned he’d dismiss the case otherwise.

The inquiry angered an employee responsible for the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act, who “believed there was enough information to allow for a decision,” Soupene wrote.

Soupene was then told that a top department official had ordered he not conduct Byrd’s hearing. The case was transferred to Administrative Law Judge Kristian Anderson, who had found the other four inmates guilty days earlier.

Anderson found the accuser’s claim that the assault lasted up to three hours wasn’t credible, noting that guards make rounds every 30 minutes. But he said he believed an assault did occur and found “some evidence” that Byrd participated.

Byrd’s attorney, Phil Mears, praised McManus for rejecting judicial interference. But he’s planning to appeal the remedy, arguing that the case should be dismissed without another hearing.

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