By Drew Singer
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - A former guard convicted of abusing inmates at a Pennsylvania state prison was spared on Thursday from serving a prison sentence of his own.
Harry Nicoletti, 61, was accused of being the ringleader of a group of six other guards charged with inmate abuse at SCI Pittsburgh, a state prison where he worked, prosecutors said.
He was convicted in January of 27 charges, including criminal solicitation, indecent exposure and official oppression. He had faced 89 counts, including rape at the prison in 2009 and 2010, but the jury did not find him guilty of the most serious charges.
Prosecutors said Nicoletti and the other guards put urine and feces in the food of hundreds of inmates. Of those who knew their food had been tainted, many chose not to eat. Nicoletti also exposed himself to inmates, they said.
"It was evil for evil's sake," said Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Jon Pittman at the sentencing hearing on Thursday.
Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge David Cashman sentenced Nicoletti to five years' probation. He had faced the possibility of up to 18 months in the state prison system.
"I'm sparing you from the danger you posed to the individuals you were in charge of," Cashman told him.
In court, Nicoletti apologized to his colleagues, but did not address his remarks to any inmates.
He said the stress of the case had contributed to the death of his father and said he had been fired by the state Department of Corrections, which crippled his family financially.
But the sentence was seen as too lenient by some observers in the courtroom including Joe Sibeto, whose son is an inmate at SCI Pittsburgh.
"He should get jail time just like every other criminal does," he said. "He never stopped. He only stopped when they got rid of him. This went on for years."
Nicoletti's lawyer, Steve Colafella, said probation was within the sentencing guidelines of the charges Nicoletti was convicted of, only one of which was a felony.
Charges against four of the other guards have been dropped, while a fifth is awaiting trial and the sixth was convicted of threatening an inmate.
A number of inmates have filed civil lawsuits against Nicoletti, while several of the guards originally accused in the case have filed lawsuits against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst, G Crosse)