ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two Alaskans charged with escaping from a private prison in Arizona have been acquitted by an Arizona jury.
They are among roughly 850 Alaskans housed at the Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence, Ariz., run by the Corrections Corporation of America.
Jurors returned the not guilty verdicts in Florence on Feb. 18, after Mark Hartvigsen testified that he had to get out of the prison because his life was in danger, said his attorney, Richard Gierloff.
Hartvigsen told jurors he has a heart condition requiring medicine, but that prison guards ''will often withhold his heart medication for disciplinary reasons,'' Gierloff said.
The prosecutor in the case told the jury that Hartvigsen's allegations were not true, according to Alaska Corrections Commissioner Margaret Pugh.
Edward L. Martin, a second Alaskan tried before the same jury, was acquitted after offering an even rarer defense. In closing arguments, his attorney pointed out that the prosecution failed to present any evidence that the defendant was the same ''Inmate Martin'' who escaped.
Pugh said Tuesday that she and other state officials were astounded at the verdicts when they first learned of them, without any details. She attributed them to the unpredictable nature of juries, she said.
But when informed Tuesday of Hartvigsen's accusations, Pugh said she called the people running the detention center. They assured her that none of the charges were true. And, after five years of working with CCA, Pugh said, she is inclined to believe them.
''I am extremely comfortable at this point ... at the way Central Arizona Detention Center deals with our inmates that we send down there,'' Pugh said.
The state pays CCA about $17 million a year for the leased facility and its staff.
Hartvigsen and Martin were among six Alaskans who cut through fences and escaped in October 1996. All were captured within a week. Six others were accused of attempting to escape but never got off prison grounds.
Martin, 59, was arrested a week later in Oakland, Calif., at his son's house, according to newspaper accounts at the time. He is serving time for attempted sexual abuse of a minor and is due to be released in October 2001.
Hartvigsen, 49, got 15 miles away and surrendered in the next county. In a news media interview, he said the escape was to protest his illegal imprisonment. Hartvigsen has been convicted over the years of sexual abuse of a minor, escape, theft, burglary and kidnapping. His release date is March 2009.
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