Rikers Island Guard Found Guilty in Beating Death of Prisoner

Brian Coll, former Rikers Island guard, is shown in this New York City Department of Investigation photo released on November 23, 2016. Coll was accused of causing the death of an inmate in 2012 after repeatedly kicking him in the head. New York City Department of Investigation/Reuters

Ronald Spear wore glasses and typically walked with a cane. While the 52-year-old awaited trial at Rikers Island, a city jail so violent it's currently under federal oversight, he was housed in a medical unit because his kidneys were failing and he needed regular dialysis. On his wrist was a bracelet that read, "Risk of Fall." Early on December 19, 2012, less than a week before Christmas, Spear demanded to see a doctor.

Brian Coll was hired by the Department of Corrections in 2002 and was working in the North Infirmary when Spear walked out of his dormitory and tried to enter the doctor's office. When the doctor said he couldn't see Spear until later that morning, Coll and Spear started to argue and the correction officer began to punch the older man in the face and body as Spear raised his hands above his head. As other correction officers ran in and tackled Spear, Coll reared his foot back, yelled, "Motherfucker," and repeatedly kicked Spear in the head.

Inmates stood on their beds so they could see the beating and yelled, "They're killing him!" They were right. Coll kept kicking Spear in the head – and even kicked and injured another officer who tried to stop the attack. Spear was moaning in pain when Coll finally stopped kicking him, according to a criminal complaint filed against Coll in 2014.

But Coll wasn't finished. He kneeled down, picked up Spear's head and, according to the complaint, told the dying man, "That's what you get for fucking with me. Remember that I'm the one who did this to you." When a Rikers Island medical team reached Spear, he wasn't moving, and after they tried and failed multiple times to resuscitate him, he was pronounced dead.

An investigation into Spear's death by FBI agents found evidence that Coll and two other correction officers conspired to cover up how Spear died, claiming the dead man attacked Coll with his cane. When no cane was recovered at the scene where Spear died, a Rikers Island captain told a correction officer to grab a cane from a supply area and pass it off to investigators as the one Spear used to attack Coll, according to federal prosecutors.

Coll was charged last year with the beating death of Spear and the cover-up. On Thursday afternoon, following a 10-day trial notable for grisly testimony that underscored the constant violence that plagues Rikers Island, he was found guilty on all counts. Coll now faces the possibility of a life sentence on the other side of the bars.

His conviction is the latest event that highlights how treacherous it is to be imprisoned on Rikers Island—where 9,000 officers watch over 10,000 prisoners—and shows how pervasive the code of silence that conceals negligent or criminal actions can be. New York City paid $5.75 million in September to settle a lawsuit over the death of Bradley Ballard, a mentally ill man who died after he was locked in a jail cell without his medication for a week in 2013. A homeless veteran died in a sweltering hot cell there in 2014. Last year, the family of a prisoner who was ignored by guards after he swallowed a toxic soap packet and begged for help as he died received a $3.8 million settlement. In September, six Rikers Island correction officers were sentenced for beating a prisoner and in October, while another four were convicted for beating an inmate and covering it up.

The violence at Rikers Island—which also includes inmate attacks on guards—forced the federal government to step in. The Department of Justice joined a lawsuit against the city in 2014, claiming that jail staff use force against juvenile inmates with "alarming frequency," fail to discipline employees for using excessive force and allow a "powerful" code of silence to persist at the facility. That lawsuit led to sweeping reforms, including the introduction of body cameras on guards, a prohibition against guards hitting inmates in the head and the installation of a federal monitor.

But while the federal monitor team said in a May report that significant progress has been made at Rikers, a 413-acre island that rises out of the East River between Hunts Point in the Bronx and LaGuardia Airport in Queens, they also raised concerns about the use of force against inmates. The report stated, "The number of use of force incidents involving head strikes and neck injuries; force being used on inmates in restraints; unexplained inmate injuries; incidents occurring outside of areas covered by surveillance cameras; high utilization rates for chemical agents; and unreported uses of force remain a source of continuing concern."

A jury of seven women and five men reportedly deliberated for just four hours before voting to convict Coll in Manhattan federal court Thursday. The two Rikers Island guards charged in the cover up had already pleaded guilty and will receive lesser sentences.

"Coll killed Spear by repeatedly kicking him in the head as he lay restrained on the ground, telling him before he died not to forget who did this to him," says Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and last month accepted president-elect Trump's offer to stay on in the new administration. "The FBI investigators and career prosecutors on this case did not forget. And today, neither did the jury."

Perhaps the most unsettling detail from the Coll trial came from a federal prosecutor in her closing remarks. Assistant U.S. Attorney Brooke Cucinella told the jury Tuesday that Coll was so proud when The Village Voice published a story about Spear's death in 2013 that he hung the article in a gold frame in the bedroom of his Long Island home. Standing before the jury, the prosecutor described the framed clipping and said, "Let's call it what it is—a trophy."

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