Pennsylvania prosecutors dropped their case Friday against a jail guard accused of sexually abusing inmates, saying they were hamstrung by the recent state Supreme Court decision that freed Bill Cosby.
The attorney general’s office had been seeking to prosecute John Shnipes on charges that he assaulted four female inmates at the Lackawanna County jail in Scranton between 1999 and 2013.
A judge dismissed the case against Shnipes last year, ruling that state prosecutors were bound by a 2013 agreement in which county prosecutors promised Shnipes he would not face charges if he resigned.
The state attorney general’s office was in the process of appealing that decision when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed Cosby’s sexual assault conviction in June, ruling the entertainer shouldn’t have been charged in the case because of a promise made by a previous prosecutor.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the Cosby decision set a precedent that left him no choice but to drop the case against Shnipes. His office sought court permission Friday to withdraw its appeal.
“The Cosby decision has handcuffed the Commonwealth to an ill-informed agreement that allowed Mr. Shnipes to resign instead of facing prosecution,” Shapiro’s office said in a written statement. “As a result of this agreement made 8 years ago, prior to a full investigation into Mr. Shnipes’ criminal conduct, our office sees no way forward in achieving accountability for this defendant and justice for his victims.”
Shnipes was charged in 2018 along with six other guards after a grand jury probe into what Shapiro has called a “persistent culture of abuse” at the scandal-ridden lockup.
Only three of those cases resulted in convictions. One of the guards initially named by the grand jury sued Shapiro this year, accusing him of malicious prosecution after the case was ultimately dropped.
Shnipes’ attorney, Brian McMonagle, said Shapiro’s office made the correct decision.
“John and his family are just very, very happy that this is over,” said McMonagle, who also represented Cosby in his first sexual assault trial, which ended with a deadlocked jury. “He’s always maintained his innocence in reference to these allegations.”
A grand jury said Shnipes serially assaulted inmates at the prison in Scranton, forcing them to perform sex acts and giving them cigarettes and other contraband afterward.
One inmate “did what she thought has had to do in order to survive,” the grand jury said. Another testified that she complied with Shnipes’ demands to avoid further harassment and punishment. A third said she “felt so ashamed and disgusted that she attempted to commit suicide by hanging herself in her cell,” the grand jury said.
Shapiro’s office said in its statement that the Cosby precedent has “significant consequences for the public,” though McMonagle said it’s only in the “rarest of circumstances” that a defendant and a prosecutor’s office strike a nonprosecution agreement.
“And when they are entered into, they should be upheld,” he said. “When a prosecutor gives his word, his word is his bond, and when people rely on that, it should be enforced.”
State prosecutors had alleged a pattern of sexual coercion and cover-up at the Lackawanna County jail, with the grand jury contending in 2018 that guards traded commissary items, food, cigarettes or extra phone time for sex.