NEW YORK (AP) — A guard at New York City's troubled jail complex Rikers Island "savagely" kicked an ailing inmate to death four years ago before persuading fellow guards to lie about what happened, a prosecutor told jurors Friday during opening statements at his trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeannette Vargas told jurors in Manhattan federal court that Brian Coll killed Ronald Spear early one morning in December 2012 after the 52-year-old victim became agitated that he could not immediately see a physician at the complex.
Defense attorney Joshua Dratel blamed Spear, saying his "aggressive resistance" to guards subduing him led to his death. Dratel said prosecutors had no credible evidence about Coll kicking Spear. He suggested some evidence may show Spear was dead before any kicks are alleged to have occurred.
"His death was not the result of Mr. Coll's conduct," Dratel said of Spear, who suffered from numerous serious health issues, including diabetes and kidney disease. Spear was being held on a burglary charge.
The trial comes amid calls for reform or a shutdown of the 400-acre island in the East River that holds most of the city's 10,000 inmates. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for the jail complex to be replaced. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat like Cuomo, has said calls to close Rikers are "noble" but possibly impractical given financial and logistical realities.
The push for reform began in 2014 after The Associated Press reported on dozens of deaths that highlighted poor supervision, questionable medical care and failure to prevent suicides. Those deaths included a homeless ex-Marine who essentially baked to death in a hot cell and a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days.
Last year, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced a deal with lawyers for injured inmates and New York City to reduce widespread violence at Rikers through the installation of 8,000 surveillance cameras in a 10-jail complex, retraining of correction officers, punishment of guards for excessive force and the supervision of a court-appointed monitor.
The monitor, Steve Martin, said in October that Rikers' guards strike too many inmates in the head, a tactic meant only as a last resort because it can be fatal.
On Friday, Bharara watched as a spectator as Vargas recounted Spear's death, saying other guards held him on the floor outside a jail doctor's office as Coll "kicked him again and again," causing bleeding in his brain.
She said Coll picked up Spear's head and taunted him, saying: "Remember that I'm the one who did this to you."
The prosecutor said the case was about a guard given power over others and "how he abused that power to savagely kick" Spear to death.
The prosecutor said a guard who helped hold Spear down has pleaded guilty in the case and will testify against Coll.
If convicted of violating Spear's civil rights, obstruction of justice and conspiring to falsify records, Coll, 47, could face life in prison.
New York City has paid out $2.75 million to Spear's family.