2 fired correctional officers to appeal

They assert that they never touched prisoner who died

June 15, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

In the midst of a melee at Baltimore's Central Booking and Intake Center last month, Kandis Harlee said she shouted orders to angry, agitated inmates to move away from a cell where officers were trying to subdue Raymond K. Smoot.

Minutes later, while standing about 15 feet outside Smoot's cell, the eight-year veteran correctional officer turned to look inside and saw three officers "stomping with an up-and-down motion" with their legs, she said yesterday.

Harlee, 34, said she does not know why the encounter May 14 escalated from other officers' attempts to handcuff Smoot into a scene of deadly chaos. She said her look into the cell was prompted by an inmate, who said: "`Oh, my God. Look at what they're doing to him. They're stomping him.' "

Smoot, 51, died the next day at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. An internal state investigation led to the termination of eight correctional officers Friday, and the city state's attorney's office began reviewing yesterday whether to file criminal charges. The U.S. Department of Justice has also opened a federal civil rights inquiry into Smoot's death.

Yesterday, two of the eight fired officers - Harlee and Anthony Pointer, 44, a nine-year veteran at Central Booking - said in an interview that they were fired despite telling investigators that they never touched Smoot, were never given orders by supervisors while at the scene and were not in a position to prevent Smoot's death.

Harlee and Pointer said they will appeal the state's decision to fire them.

Without discussing Harlee's and Pointer's cases, Mark Vernarelli, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said, "The personal use of physical force is not the only reason for firing an officer after an incident like the death of Mr. Smoot."

Harlee and Pointer, and their union representative, said they believe that state officials are using them as scapegoats to contain negative publicity.

"What happened that night was a mismanaged situation by management, and they have to find fall guys and here they are," said Ed Rothstein, board member of the Maryland Association of Correctional and Security Employees. "You tell the truth, and you get fired."

Rothstein noted that only one of the eight officers, a lieutenant, held a supervisory position; the rest were rank-and-file.

Meanwhile, protests continued outside Central Booking last night. More than 40 people gathered for a march around the building and bullhorn speeches, organized by Smoot's family and local activists.

"You get so mad hearing about what happened," said Barbara H. Weber, 35, who spent 46 hours in the jail on charges that were never pursued. "These officers, they feel free to do anything they want."

Harlee and Pointer said they were among more than 20 officers who responded to a radio call for help.

The call apparently triggered the frenzy inside a common area designed as a place where inmates can sit at tables and mingle during recreation time. Because of crowding at the facility, nearly 40 inmates were housed unrestrained in the area outside Smoot's cell, according to officers' accounts.

Harlee said she was working on the fourth floor of the center tower, directly above Smoot's floor, and overseeing about 90 male inmates, when she heard a female voice call on the radio "assistance needed on three-center" tower.

She said she ran downstairs, entered the common area and saw three officers gathering around a cell and talking to someone inside. She assumed the officers were in control and began ordering inmates to move away from the cell.

Minutes later, she looked back at the cell and saw that the three officers - a man and two women - were inside.

"When I got there to look, it appeared to me they were trying to handcuff Smoot," Harlee said. Smoot, who was sitting on a bed, kept moving his hands and resisting the officers' attempts to restrain him, but she never saw him strike any of them, Harlee said.

In their written statements to investigators, the two female officers said that Smoot struck the male officer. Both female officers were terminated, according to another union official familiar with the case. But the male officer involved early in the encounter was not fired, Harlee and Pointer said.

Harlee said she briefly stepped inside the cell. While in there, she said, someone, whom she did not see, yanked her out of the cell and into the common area. She turned around and saw officers rushing into the area and inmates swarming around, she said.

Pointer, who said he was given an "officer of the month" award in March, said he arrived as the encounter was ending. He said he heard a female voice on his radio announce a "Code 2" - an urgent call for help - and then ran from his post to the third floor of the neighboring housing tower, where Smoot's cell was.

He came upon a scene that he described as "mayhem."

"Inmates were gathered around the cell, on the table, everywhere," Pointer said. "They were screaming; they were upset. It was pandemonium."

Pointer said he started ordering inmates to move away from Smoot's cell. By the time he had a clear line of sight into the cell, all he could see was "a male individual laying on the floor" and "some blood," Pointer said.

Pointer, who said he has no supervisory authority, disputes his firing.

"I couldn't see anything going on inside the cell," he said. "I shouldn't have been fired. Basically, I got up there after everything was over."

Sun staff writer William Wan contributed to this article.

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