Grand jury in Allegany to investigate inmate's death

Ifeanyi A. Iko died after fight with guards

July 14, 2004|By Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes | Greg Garland and Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

The Allegany County state's attorney's office plans to convene a grand jury to investigate an inmate's death at Western Correctional Institution to determine whether criminal charges should be brought, according to several people familiar with the inquiry.

A state legislator, a union official and two other sources close to the investigation of the death of Ifeanyi A. Iko said that the case is heading for a grand jury. Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, died April 30 shortly after a violent confrontation with correctional officers at WCI. The medical examiner's office ruled the death a homicide by asphyxiation.

State's Attorney Michael O. Twigg did not respond to telephone calls yesterday seeking information about the inquiry.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, said she met Friday with Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar to discuss her concerns about conditions at the medium-security prison near Cumberland and issues relating to Iko's death.

Marriott said Saar told her that an internal investigation of Iko's death has been completed and the information was given to Twigg. "She said it's in the hands of the Allegany County state's attorney now and there will be a grand jury investigation," Marriott said yesterday.

The executive director of a union that represents correctional officers also said he was aware that an Allegany County grand jury would be reviewing the circumstances of Iko's death. "I am aware of that [grand jury]," said Zachary Ramsey, executive director of AFSCME Council 92.

Ramsey said he brought a union lawyer to meet with a group of WCI correctional officers two or three weeks ago to advise them of their legal rights.

He said correctional officers who were involved with Iko's forcible removal from an isolation cell April 30 believe they followed proper corrections department procedures and did nothing wrong.

"They want people to know that they are professionals and that from their point of view there was never any intention to do harm," Ramsey said. "They've cooperated with internal investigators. They're not trying to hide anything."

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he could not confirm whether a grand jury had been asked to review Iko's death.

"As you know, grand jury proceedings are secret," he said.

Vernarelli said that the department is "committed to a thorough investigation, unimpeded by rumor, theory and false allegations. ... We must let the investigation and whatever process the state's attorney chooses to use take its course."

He stressed that a ruling of homicide by the medical examiner "does not mean a crime or negligence has occurred," only that someone has died because of actions by another person.

It was unclear when the grand jury would begin meeting, but sources indicated it would be by the end of the month and that plans call for some sessions to be held in the WCI chapel area - apparently to make it easier to interview inmate witnesses.

Iko's death raised questions about how Iko was handled during and immediately after his forcible removal from an isolation cell. Prison staff had wanted to move Iko to a special observation housing unit in another section of the prison for psychological evaluation, but the inmate refused to cooperate.

About a half-dozen riot-clad correctional officers sprayed three cans of pepper spray into Iko's cell before bursting in to restrain him. An inmate witness reported hearing the sounds of a violent struggle and said Iko screamed loudly, then fell silent.

When an ambulance was summoned two hours later, there were indications that he was already dead. A paramedic reported signs of "rigidity" within minutes of leaving the prison and sought and received permission to cease life-saving efforts. Several Maryland legislators voiced concerns yesterday about Iko's death and said that the case calls for thorough, independent investigation.

"It's a very serious situation and it warrants very close scrutiny by the [state corrections] department and the General Assembly," said state Sen. Brian R. Frosh, who heads the senate's judicial proceedings committee.

The Montgomery County Democrat said he finds it "disturbing" that an inmate would die after his forcible removal from a cell. "My antennae are up," Frosh said. "I think that would be the case for the [state corrections] department as well."

Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam said Iko's death should set off alarms within the corrections department. "I've really become concerned about the people we entrust the lives of prisoners to," said Nathan-Pulliam, a Baltimore Democrat.

Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the investigation into Iko's death should have been conducted by state police rather than internal investigators from Saar's department. "You're asking the same institution to investigate itself, and I don't think that's good public policy," Brochin said.

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