Inmate killed, coroner rules

Nigerian immigrant, 51, died of asphyxiation

Prisoners say Iko was beaten

Homicide investigation under way at prison

May 28, 2004|By Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes | Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

A 51-year-old prison inmate's death at the Western Correctional Institute after guards forcibly removed him from his cell has been ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner's office.

Ifeanya A. Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, died of asphyxiation, according to Karen V. Poe, spokeswoman for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore.

"We were not able to identify a specific injury that led to Mr. Iko's asphyxia," Poe said yesterday.

Prison officials said Iko was found motionless in his cell at 4:30 p.m. April 30. He was taken to Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland, where he died 40 minutes later.

Relatives of Iko said they suspected foul play. And several inmates wrote letters to The Sun saying they saw correctional officers severely beat Iko and spray him with a chemical or pepper spray on the day he died.

Iko had been sent to prison in 1991 to serve a three-year sentence for drug distribution in Prince George's County, court records show. In 1992, he stabbed and bit a correctional officer while at the Eastern Correctional Institution and eventually received an additional 20-year sentence, records show.

The announcement that Iko's death was a homicide was made one day after authorities with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services said they were broadening their investigation.

On Wednesday, public safety department authorities asked Maryland State Police and investigators with the Allegany County state's attorney's office to assist the department's internal investigators.

"They've reached out to us for assistance, so we're assisting," said Jim Pyles, a detective sergeant with the state police.

However, he said, the public safety department's internal investigators are continuing to take the lead role.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said investigators are "checking on everything the inmate did and everything that happened" on the day he died.

"The [Iko] family absolutely deserves to know exactly how and why the inmate died and we intend to cooperate fully with the state's attorney, the Maryland State Police and the medical examiner to determine that," Vernarelli said.

If correctional officers followed department policy, there should be a videotape of the forced removal of Iko from his cell. Vernarelli said that he could not disclose whether such a tape exists, citing the criminal investigation.

"If there is a videotape, it would be part of what was turned over to the state's attorney," he said.

Vernarelli said that no disciplinary action or transfers of correctional officers have taken place as a result of Iko's death.

"A ruling of homicide does not automatically mean that there is criminal culpability or negligence or that a crime was committed," he said.

Bruce L. Marcus, an attorney for Iko's family, said that this case cries out for "an independent, untainted and thorough investigation" to determine what happened.

Marcus said it is clear that Iko was under the direct control of correctional officers at the time of his death.

"We have received information that suggests that both his hands and legs were bound immediately prior to the time that he died of asphyxiation," he said.

He cited accounts by inmate witnesses - also made in the letters sent to The Sun - that "copious amounts of disabling chemical agents were applied" to Iko.

`Valuable information'

In separate letters, inmates said three cans of chemical spray were used on Iko in his cell in the segregation unit - where prisoners are separated from the general inmate population for disciplinary, administrative or other reasons.

One of the letters was signed by 12 inmates.

Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said it is unusual for so many inmates to sign their names to letters with public complaints about the actions of correctional officers.

"When you have this many inmates who are willing to sign their names, it suggests that they have valuable information to provide," he said.

He said the inmates clearly are hoping that someone will take a much closer look at prison conditions generally.

Colbert agreed with Marcus that a special or independent prosecutor should be appointed to review the Iko case.

"You need a full and complete investigation in which inmate witnesses are protected from retaliation," he said. "In some jails, the life of a witness who is testifying against a corrections officer is very much at risk."

Colbert said the public needs to be assured that jails are safe for inmates - especially in light of recent revelations about the abuse of prisoners in Iraq by American soldiers.

37 inmate deaths

Vernarelli said there have been 37 inmate deaths at the prison since it opened eight years ago.

He said that is not an unusual number for a prison that houses about 1,650 inmates and noted that many are in prison for drug offenses and are often in ill health.

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