Inmate abruptly pleads guilty in day 2 of prison riot trial

State police gather outside SCI Houtzdale in April 2015 after an inmate riot that left several staff members injured.
State police gather outside SCI Houtzdale in April 2015 after an inmate riot that left several staff members injured. Centre Daily Times, file

The second day of the trial for a state prison inmate accused of assaulting three officers during a 2015 prison riot ended abruptly Tuesday when he pleaded guilty.

Norman Wothman, 52, was charged with three counts each of aggravated assault, assault by prisoner, simple assault and harassment, as well as riot, disorderly conduct and several counts of criminal conspiracy.

The charges stem from an incident at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale in Clearfield County in April, after which four corrections officers were taken to UPMC Altoona for treatment. The facility was on lock down for about eight hours.

Wothman, who is serving a 70- to 140-year sentence for seven brutal rapes in Philadelphia in 2002 and 2004, has been moved to Rockview state prison, according to court records.

Wothman, who was representing himself, called two witnesses, both state prison inmates, before he testified in his own defense. During his testimony he repeated what he said in his opening statements, that he wanted only to tell his side of the story. He then said he wanted to plead guilty.

Previously, he said he only intervened to help another inmate who was being taken down by several corrections officers, adding he would have done the same for anybody including the officers.

“If this was the other way around they would give me a medal,” he said.

Even though he said he was barely identifiable in the surveillance footage, he said he didn’t have any reason to lie and that he was guilty.

After this twist, a guilty plea to all the charges was entered. Wothman will not be able to withdraw the plea.

On Monday four officers who were injured in the riot testified for the prosecution. Former corrections officer Ralph Dickson, who recently retired, said he entered the prison yard to contain inmate Richard Adams after Adams hit another inmate with a ball. Adams reportedly refused to comply. When other officers responded to help contain Adams, Dickson testified, several inmates began to punch and kick the officers.

Three of these officers testified that Wothman was one of the inmates who assaulted them. The jury was shown the surveillance footage where an inmate identified as Wothman could be seen striking them.

Wothman’s two witnesses claimed the guards were striking the prisoners. Both of these men also said they were among the inmates who refused to go inside and stayed out in the yard until after 10 p.m. that night.

In an interview after the proceedings, District Attorney William Shaw Jr. commented on the abrupt guilty plea, saying he has never before seen a defendant take the stand and then say he is guilty.

Shaw said that in his opinion, Wothman and Adams should not have been in the general prison population. The security levels for the inmates are up to the Department of Corrections, he said.

Two of the officers suffered life-altering injuries because of this situation and “it’s not fair to them,” Shaw said. At the time of the incident, there were 500 inmates supervised by only three to five unarmed guards, he said.

“The DOC needs to re-evaluate the system so this doesn’t happen again,” he said.

There are two other assault cases stemming from the riot pending, although Shaw said they have signed plea agreements. Three inmates are scheduled for preliminary hearings next week on charges related to the riot.