Senate to probe death of inmate

Need seen for outside investigation after grand jury clears guards

August 04, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes and Greg Garland | Gus G. Sentementes and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

State legislators will further investigate the homicide of an inmate at a Western Maryland prison, saying that an Allegany County grand jury inquiry - which exonerated prison staff last week - left many unanswered questions.

"The grand jury has concluded no crime was committed, but the coroner said it was a homicide," Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings committee and a Montgomery County Democrat, said yesterday. "At the very least, there was a serious mistake made in handling the prisoner."

Frosh agreed to schedule a committee hearing this fall.

Sen. James Brochin, a Democratic committee member who asked Frosh to schedule a hearing, said he wants to hear explanations from state correctional officials about what happened in the April 30 death of Ifeanyi A. Iko, an inmate at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown.

Brochin said he also wants to be certain that proper regulations are in place and are being followed.

"I just think there are a lot of unanswered questions in regard to this case," said Brochin, of Baltimore County. "I contacted Senator Frosh on Monday and talked about some of those questions."

The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has withheld all but the most basic details about the death of Iko, a 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant who had lived in Prince George's County. An attorney who represents Iko's relatives said they plan to file a lawsuit against the state.

Mark Vernarelli, a corrections spokesman, said in an e-mail statement yesterday that Mary Ann Saar, department secretary, "welcomes comment from any legislator who may have any concerns, and in fact has spoken with some recently about this issue."

Iko died shortly after a violent encounter with correctional officers at the prison near Cumberland. After spraying three cans of pepper spray into his cell, a team of correctional officers in riot gear put him in restraints, and transported him to another part of the prison. Along the way, officers placed a mesh mask on his face designed to prevent him from spitting or biting, according to inmate witnesses and other sources.

About two hours later, officers summoned an ambulance when they found Iko motionless in another cell. Within minutes of leaving prison grounds, a paramedic reported that Iko showed signs of rigor mortis and received permission to cease life-saving efforts, according to the 911 tape.

His death was later ruled a homicide by asphyxiation.

Brochin said he was uncomfortable with the probe of the death being conducted by an internal investigative unit, rather than an outside agency, such as the state police.

The Allegany County state's attorney's office and the Maryland State Police joined the investigation in May after the state medical examiner ruled Iko's death a homicide, but they have not played a prominent role.

Grand jury acts

Last week, after spending two days reviewing the internal unit's findings, an Allegany County grand jury unanimously decided not to bring criminal charges. The grand jury did not interview inmate witnesses.

Michael O. Twigg, the Allegany County state's attorney, said the jurors reviewed the results of the internal investigators' probe, which included videotapes of Iko being taken out of his cell and the aftermath. Investigators also recorded interviews with inmate witnesses, which were heard by jurors, he said.

Several inmates have complained in letters to The Sun that they didn't trust internal investigators and had wanted to be interviewed by the state police. The state police did not interview prison staff or inmates.

"I heeded every request of the grand jury in what they wanted and who they wanted to see," Twigg said.

He said the jurors made several recommendations to the state Division of Correction to help prevent inmate deaths.

The jurors called for additional training for division employees on the risks of using various forms of restraint. Jurors also recommended developing protocols to better determine the condition of inmates who are forcibly removed from their cells. They also suggested that the division improve the video techniques that officers use when recording their actions and the actions of inmates as they are removed from their cells.

It is unclear whether any on the prison staff face departmental discipline in the case. Several officers who took Iko out of his cell on the day of his death are now working in other parts of the prison, according to inmates and the department.

Brochin said he hoped Division of Correction Commissioner Frank C. Sizer Jr. and the prison's warden, Jon P. Galley, would be among the people who would provide testimony.

Some oppose hearing

Some lawmakers, however, disagreed that further review was needed. Del. George C. Edwards, an Allegany and Garrett County Republican, said he thought the internal investigation and the grand jury inquiry was sufficient.

Brochin said the grand jury's conclusions might have been correct, but he felt a responsibility to "dig a little deeper."

"Why not secure the scene, bring in state police and let them take the lead in the [Iko] investigation?" Brochin said. "Why wouldn't we want to bring in an independent body and let them take the lead? I am befuddled."

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