A Sedgwick County jury on Thursday convicted a former nurse at the Sedgwick County Jail of four felony counts of smuggling contraband into a correctional institution.
Prosecutors said Nancy Bunville bought two cellphones – one for herself and one for an inmate – to facilitate a personal relationship she had developed with the inmate. She also was charged with bringing him tobacco, Tylenol and a small tool set in violation of jail policy.
The defense claimed that Bunville was a naive farm girl who had never been exposed to gangs or manipulators before going to work in the jail clinic in November 2011. Yes, she developed a relationship with the inmate, the defense argued, but she also feared what that inmate might do to her or her family if she failed to comply with his demands.
Testimony at the trial showed that Bunville, 38, was working for Conmed, a Maryland company that has a contract to provide medical services at the jail clinic, when she met inmate Mario Merrills. Merrills, 35, was at the jail while appealing his sentence for attempted second-degree murder and aggravated robbery.
Never miss a local story.
Evidence showed that Merrills hid the phone that Bunville bought for him by removing non-standard screws from a light fixture in his cell. He was apparently able to remove the screws by using the tool kit provided by Bunville. He is scheduled to stand trial this month for possessing the cellphone.
During his closing argument, prosecutor Aaron Breitenbach focused on phone records that showed that Bunville used her cellphone to call Merrills’ cellphone 600 times in the weeks before she was arrested in April 2012.
Defense lawyer Steve Ariagno said the number was drastically inflated because the vast majority of the calls were never completed. He said the completed calls were an indication that Bunville indeed had feelings for Merrills even though she feared him.
“Nancy Bunville has never been in trouble before,” Ariagno told the jury in his closing argument. “She’d never encountered gang members. She’d never encountered con men. It’s who she was.
“The Sedgwick County Jail is full of gang members, master manipulators and con men, and all of those attributes existed in Mario Merrills.”
But Ariagno said Merrills also could be charming and empathetic. After Merrills lured Bunville in with flattery, Ariagno said, he began threatening her and her family with violence.
“That’s when he turns on his little good-cop, bad-cop routine,” he said. “She did what was required of her because she was scared.”
Breitenbach said he didn’t buy the argument that Bunville was compelled to break the law.
“If manipulation was a defense in a criminal case, no one would be convicted of anything,” he said. “Everyone makes poor choices, but we are accountable for our actions.
“This arguably is victimless crime; no one got hurt. Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘You know what? She’s suffered enough.’ But let me remind you before giving her a pass, this stuff doesn’t get into the jail without her.
“If we choose who the law applies to based on how they present (themselves), then who will the law apply to?”
Bunville will be sentenced Sept. 25 by District Judge William Woolley.