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Defense argues ex-Rockbridge jail superintendent allowed other inmates privileges

Defense argues ex-Rockbridge jail superintendent allowed other inmates privileges


LYNCHBURG — Former Rockbridge Regional Jail inmates testified Friday about their experiences and privileges in the work release program during John Marshall Higgins’ tenure as superintendent.

Defense attorney Grady Donaldson argued other inmates received similar privileges to Nicholas Hansel, an inmate whom Higgins has been accused of favoring after accepting a bribe.

Higgins is facing 21 charges accusing him of failure to protect inmates from abuse, failure to provide them with proper medical care, and accepting bribes. Some 40 witnesses have testified since the bench trial began Monday in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg. Prosecutors wrapped up their case Thursday.

Prosecutors accused Higgins of providing special treatment to Hansel, who became an inmate at the jail after he pleaded guilty in January 2015 to aggravated involuntary manslaughter, two counts of DUI maiming and drunken driving. Hansel was a student at Washington and Lee University at the time of his crash, which killed a 21-year-old classmate.

During witness testimony this week, prosecutors argued that Hansel was approved for work release more quickly than other inmates. On the work release program, inmates leave the jail during the day to work at local businesses and then return to the jail at night.

Witnesses testified that Hansel had visitors while he was at work, which prosecutors said is against the jail’s policy. According to jail documents, Hansel worked weekends and holidays, but witnesses testified that he was spending time with his family on those holidays.

Donaldson argued Friday that other inmates received similar privileges while on work release.

Business owners who hired work release inmates said sometimes inmates were allowed visitors.

Keith Holland, who owns a construction company and farm that employed inmates, said Higgins did allow visitors, but they had to be approved by him first. Holland said on one occasion, an inmate’s father fell and was injured. He had no other family in the area, so Higgins gave the inmate permission to check on his father while on work release.

Holland said he believed Higgins was being compassionate to allow those types of visits, especially because the inmates missed visitation at the jail while they were working.

Bradley Ruley, who supervised the inmates on the Holland farm, said family members would sometimes visit inmates on breaks, but they would usually not get out of the car and would only spend about 10 minutes.

Some witnesses testified Hansel had access to a computer and cellphone during his time on work release. But witnesses Friday said other inmates had access to phones as well, usually as a method to keep in contact with the jail and with their work supervisors.

In their questioning, prosecutors emphasized the different working environments between Hansel and other inmates. Most inmates worked at farms, construction companies or auto repair shops. The jobs had long hours, hard labor and minimal breaks, according to witness testimony.

In comparison, Hansel worked in an office. Witnesses said Hansel often helped babysit his employer’s children, accompanied them to high school basketball games, visited family on holidays and completed little work during his weekend shifts.

Hansel invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination when called to the stand.

Higgins is also accused of receiving free medication from Westwood Pharmacy, the company that supplied the jail’s prescriptions.

On Thursday, prosecutors presented evidence to show Higgins received Viagra valued at more than $7,000 from the pharmacy. A pharmacist from the company testified Thursday that she was asked to fill prescriptions for Higgins and would ship them to his home address.

Prosecutors presented invoices for each of the prescriptions filled over a seven-year period. The pharmacist said she went back to the company’s financial records, but could not find any documentation that Higgins ever paid for the medication.

The trial is expected to end next week.

Higgins retired as the jail’s superintendent in 2017 after the investigation was announced. He worked at the jail for more than 30 years.

Higgins also represented the Buffalo District on the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors from 2011 until December 2019, when he did not seek reelection.

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

Related to this story

John Marshall Higgins' convictions were on three counts of deprivation of civil rights, after he denied medical care to an injured inmate and failed to protect him from abuse; one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud; and two counts of mail fraud for accepting items of value in exchange for engaging in official acts.

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