Kane responds to Rockview rape victim suit in filing, says woman partly responsible for brutal assault

Centre County Sheriff's deputies escort former SCI Rockview inmate Omar Best into the Centre County Courthouse annex in May.
Centre County Sheriff's deputies escort former SCI Rockview inmate Omar Best into the Centre County Courthouse annex in May. CDT photo

In a response in federal court to a lawsuit brought by a Rockview state prison clerk brutally raped at work in July 2013, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane asserted that the woman may be partly responsible for her assault.

In the documents, Kane defends the state Department of Corrections, the former Rockview superintendent and two employees, arguing, among other things, that there was contributory negligence on the part of the victim.

“Some or all of the damages plaintiff have alleged are in part, or substantially due, to the acts of third parties other than the answering defendants, and/or plaintiff acted in a manner which in whole or in part contributed to the events which led to the damages plaintiff has alleged in her complaint,” Kane wrote.

Omar Best, 37, of Philadelphia, was convicted of the crimes in May. On Sept. 12, he was sentenced in Centre County to life in prison under three-strikes provisions that allow maximum punishment for habitual offenders.

Best’s criminal history, laid out for Judge Bradley P. Lunsford by Assistant District Attorney Nathan Boob at trial, included a criminal resume dating back 23 years, with his most recent conviction — the one that landed him at Rockview — being for kidnapping a woman off the street, taking her home and raping her for hours, assaulting her with a handgun, attempting brutal perversions, beating her and leaving her naked on the street.

Other crimes included shooting a man who tried to stop him from assaulting a woman and attacking a woman who ultimately jumped from a roof to escape.

In the documents filed Sept. 5, Kane’s office denies that the Department of Corrections or Rockview had knowledge of Best’s prior convictions.

The victim’s lawsuit alleges that after Best was transferred to Rockview for assaulting a female worker at Graterford state prison, he was allowed access to female employees.

That allegation was denied by the Attorney General’s Office but, later in the response, the state backtracks on that.

“It is admitted that the Department of Corrections had information relating to Omar Best’s prior conviction,” the filing says. But it denies allowing him access to female employees’ offices.

At Best’s trial, the victim told the jury that he had entered her office repeatedly on the pretense of emptying her trash. There was testimony regarding her communication with one of the suit’s defendants, Rockview correctional officer Kenneth Shilling, about Best’s presence, with the 24-year-old woman asking if Best was supposed to be in her office.

The state admits that one Facebook conversation, which was evidence in Best’s rape trial, occurred, but denies that the victim had said she didn’t want him in her office and that other conversations occurred in which she said Best made her uncomfortable.

Kane’s response denied — in part or in whole — 104 of the 154 points alleged in the suit, including the assertion that Best was charged with five felonies after the attack, that increases in staff after the rape could have been made sooner and that Marirosa Lamas was terminated as superintendent in December after an investigation.

It is in the affirmative defenses on the matter that Kane raises contributory negligence, claiming the plaintiff or another third party was responsible for the allegations directed against the DOC, et al.

The victim’s attorney said he was “outraged” by that suggestion.

“It is troubling and disturbing that they would take a position so contrary to the position the district attorney took in the criminal case,” said Clifford Rieders, of Rieders, Travis, Humphrey, Harris, Waters & Waffenschmidt in Williamsport. He called Kane’s denials and defenses “not credible.”

Centre County Women’s Resource Center Executive Director Anne Ard took issue with the position, too.

“That is unbelievable,” she said. “This kind of victim-blaming is unconscionable and, frankly, makes people distrust the justice system. I am appalled.”

At trial, Best’s defense team claimed the incident was consensual.

The victim was choked unconscious in an assault that lasted 27 minutes, according to video evidence taken from security cameras outside the office. Weeks later, her eyes were still red from broken blood vessels. A Rockview nurse called it the worst employee assault she had ever seen.

Kane’s office declined comment. Department of Corrections spokeswoman Susan Bensinger declined to comment, saying the DOC does not comment of ongoing litigation.

The victim’s supervisor, Sharon Clark, is named in the suit in addition to the Department of Corrections, Rockview, Shilling and Lamas.

The Department of Corrections and Rockview also are being sued in Commonwealth Court by Melissa Reed, a counselor whose whistle-blower suit, filed in October, claims retaliation for raising safety concerns.