Deaths of 2 inmates bring calls for change

80 hold vigil outside Central Booking in remembrance of Smoot, Benjamin

`We don't want our brother to have died in vain'

June 29, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Lightning and thunder roiled the skies and rain threatened to extinguish their candles, but relatives and friends of two inmates recently killed in Baltimore's jail facilities did not budge from their vigil last night in front of the Central Booking and Intake Center.

More than 80 strong, they wore T-shirts bearing photos of the deceased men and huddled under umbrellas, reciting prayers and poems and offering tributes. And, at times, they blasted city and state officials involved in the jails' operation with a depth of anger and sorrow that sent trembles of emotion through the crowd.

Many vowed that the deaths would not be in vain and said that they hoped to spur changes.

"They do not have the victory," Evelyn Horton, an aunt of Lennard C. Benjamin, 23, told the crowd as she raised a candle toward Central Booking. "God has the victory."

Benjamin, held since January on an attempted-murder charge at the adjacent Baltimore City Detention Center, died last week, apparently after a beating in his cell. His cellmate, Lonnie Edwards, 20, was charged with first-degree murder last week.

Benjamin's friends and family were joined yesterday by relatives of Raymond K. Smoot, 51, who died after a violent confrontation with correctional officers May 14 in Central Booking. Some officers punched, kicked and stomped Smoot's head, according to witness accounts obtained by The Sun.

"I have yet to grieve for my uncle," Donnetta Kidd, a niece of Smoot's, told the crowd. "I don't have time to grieve for my uncle because I have so much to do. ... This ain't no ordinary death."

State corrections officials said they continue to investigate why Benjamin and Edwards fought in their cell.

In Smoot's death, state corrections officials fired eight officers. The Baltimore state's attorney's office is reviewing the case for possible criminal charges, and the FBI has opened a civil rights investigation into Smoot's death.

The small patch of concrete outside Central Booking, on Madison Street, has become a meeting place and rallying point for families of inmates and human rights advocates who have gathered there in recent weeks to decry conditions and violence at the state-run jail facilities.

The deaths of Smoot and Benjamin are among several publicized incidents and issues that state corrections officials have had to confront in recent months. Inmate advocates and public defenders complained of lengthy delays in the booking process, which led a Baltimore judge to order the release of inmates who haven't had an initial hearing within 24 hours of their arrest. That order remains in effect through November.

This month, Sherman Lawrence, a 21-year-old correctional officer, was charged with conspiracy to commit attempted murder, accused of helping set up an inmate stabbing at the city detention center.

Yesterday, relatives of Smoot and Benjamin said they hoped that the deaths would lead to reforms and improvements within the jail facilities.

"We don't want our brother to have died in vain," Dominique Gasque, a cousin of Benjamin's, told the crowd. "And before I breathe my last breath on earth, there will be a change [at the jail] so others don't have to suffer anymore."

A spokeswoman for the Division of Pretrial Detention and Services said authorities continue to investigate Benjamin's death.

In early January, police arrested Benjamin in the shooting of a man in Brooklyn, apparently in a dispute over a woman, according to relatives and court records.

While at the city detention center awaiting trial, Benjamin drew from his Catholic school roots and formed a Bible study group, relatives said.

Benjamin grew up in Northeast Baltimore with his mother and, when she grew ill, with his grandmother, relatives said. He attended Catholic grade schools and graduated from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in East Baltimore five years ago, Horton said.

He loved to play chess and debate current events, Horton said. He also felt a responsibility to help raise his only sibling, a 14-year-old brother, after his mother died three years ago from sickle cell anemia, Horton said.

"The odd thing is, he was just a great kid," said the Rev. Joseph Muth, pastor at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church on Loch Raven Boulevard, who had known Benjamin since he was a child. "He came from a very loving and grateful family. They were always in church. He was always in church."

Benjamin's last job was at a supermarket in Reisterstown; he quit to focus on his classes at Baltimore City Community College, Horton said.

A close friend, Damion Benson, 24, had known Benjamin since they were children. He visited him in jail a few months ago and talked to him on the phone during his incarceration.

"He was looking forward to coming home and raising his little brother because his mother had passed," Benson said. "He took on that responsibility and now he's gone."

Recent issues

April: A city judge ordered several inmates released because they had not received a court hearing within 24 hours after their arrests. A temporary order remains in effect through November.

May 14: Raymond K. Smoot, an inmate at the Central Booking and Intake Center, was beaten by correctional officers during a melee. He died the next day. Eight correctional officers were fired, city prosecutors are considering criminal charges and federal authorities launched a civil rights investigation.

June 9: Correctional officer Sherman Lawrence, 21, was charged with conspiracy to commit attempted murder. Authorities allege that he helped set up an inmate stabbing at the Baltimore City Detention Center.

June 21: Lennard Benjamin, 23, was severely beaten by his cellmate at the city detention center, authorities say. He died two days later.

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