NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A prominent prison reform advocate committed an “evil act” when he disguised himself as a construction worker to hide guns, handcuff keys and hacksaw blades inside the walls of an under-construction Tennessee jail, Nashville Sheriff Daron Hall testified in court Tuesday.
Alex Friedmann is charged with vandalism over $250,000 in a case that Deputy District Attorney Amy Hunter told the jury in opening statements would sound like a “made up case from a Hollywood movie.”
Hunter said Friedmann had already been going in the building for several months when a sheriff's office official first noticed in December 2019 that two keys were missing from a set of keys at the new $150 million Downtown Detention Center. Surveillance video showed the same person who took the keys entering the jail numerous times and doing some type of work on the walls. When he entered again on Jan. 4, 2020, Friedmann was stopped in a secure area while the police were called. During the wait, Friedmann took jail schematics out of his pocket, ripped them up and ate them, Hunter said.
As an activist against prison privatization, Friedmann had worked with Hall on the future of another Nashville jail — one that had been privatized but was returning to the control of the sheriff's office. That is why Hall knew the security breach was serious when he learned the intruder was Friedmann.
“We knew if Alex Friedmann had been up to any good, he would have come to us and we would have provided him with information," Hall testified. "We knew we were not talking about some casual occurrence here.”
Much of what Friedmann did in the jail is undisputed. It is on camera. His motives are unknown. There were no written records discovered that explained a plan, and Friedmann is unlikely to testify at trial. Hall has suggested Friedmann was planning a massive jailbreak. The theft of the keys was discovered just a couple of weeks before the facility was scheduled to open. Speaking to reporters after his testimony Tuesday, Hall said they were just “two weeks away from a massive loss of life.”
But defense attorney Ben Raybin told the jury in opening statements that their job is not to determine the morality of what Friedmann did. Since the facts are not in dispute, the main question for the jury will be whether the government is exaggerating the amount of damage to the building. To arrive at a charge of vandalism over $250,000, prosecutors said they will show that the entire facility had to be re-keyed at a cost of just over $291,000.
Defense attorney David Raybin noted that an early news release from the sheriff's office said that between 85 to 100 locks would need to be replaced, while the final total included re-keying 1,800 locks.
The government also argued that Friedmann's vandalism includes more than $300,000 in personnel costs incurred when sheriff's officers reviewed thousands of hours of surveillance video.
Ben Raybin said in opening statements that the state is overcharging Friedmann. He urged the jury to look to the law and only hold Friedmann responsible for the actual physical damages to the jail.
Sheriff Hall testified he made the decision right away to change all the locks as a necessity for being able to open and use the new jail.
“There were many times when I thought we would never reopen the building and it would sit vacant for the rest of my tenure” he said.
Travis Loller, The Associated Press