But Harry Nicoletti's defense attorney told the jury his client is the victim of a prison rumor mill that functions something like Facebook behind bars.
"A prison's a lot like a non-computerized social network," attorney Steve Colafella told the jury. "I submit to you, that's what drives a lot of what you're going to hear in this case."
Nicoletti's trial is expected to feature testimony by more than 20 inmates he's accused of victimizing and others who claim he forced them to torment inmates he targeted for being child molesters or homosexual. A criminal complaint accuses Nicoletti, 61, of raping a transsexual male inmate and shouting sexual insults at him.
Nicoletti has said the allegations behind the 89 counts he faces are "made up," and Colafella reminded the jury the case is built upon the testimony of convicted felons.
Allegheny County Deputy District Attorney Jon Pittman explained to the jury that Nicoletti worked in an intake area at the State Correctional Institution-Pittsburgh, where prisoners are medically quarantined and processed upon their arrivals in the state prison system. He said that because inmates don't have normal freedoms, "Their very lives depend on the corrections officers."
"What this case is about is when someone with that much power and control over a person abuses that power and control to fulfill his own demented desires," Pittman said.
He said the investigation began when a child molestation convict told a counselor at another prison where he was eventually assigned that Nicoletti had exposed himself and threatened to break his hand if he didn't perform a sex act on him.
The convict's story was referred to the Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence, which investigates inmate abuse allegations for the state Department of Corrections, Pittman said. That investigation, which led to witnesses who backed up the convict's claims and to other inmates who said they suffered similar abuse, is the largest in the 30-year history of the internal affairs agency in terms of guards and the number of charges they face.
Seven guards were charged, none as seriously as Nicoletti, but all charges against three of them have been withdrawn or dismissed for lack of evidence. Nicoletti is the second of the four remaining guards to stand trial. The first was convicted last month of felony witness intimidation and other charges but was acquitted of 10 other counts.
Colafella told the jury the investigation mushroomed because inmates caught wind of the allegations and repeated and amplified them through the rumor mill.
Nicoletti faces multiple counts of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse against inmates, institutional sexual assault, official oppression and lesser charges. The first witness at his trial was lead Office of Special Investigations and Intelligence investigator Gary Hiler, who was expected to testify about the framework of the investigation into Thursday.