Officers indicted in death of inmate

Smoot was killed in melee in May at Baltimore's Central Booking

August 20, 2005|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Three former state correctional officers were arrested yesterday after a Baltimore grand jury indicted them on second-degree murder charges in the stomping death of a 51-year-old man jailed at the Central Booking and Intake Center.

The death of Raymond K. Smoot in May came during a brutal melee that spurred federal and state investigations and cast a glaring spotlight on troubles at the beleaguered facility, which holds people who have been charged with crimes but not yet tried in court.

The indictments, long awaited by the inmate's family, are rare instances of officials attempting to hold state correctional officers criminally responsible in an inmate's death. The indictments, handed up this week, remained sealed.

"It won't bring no closure until they are sentenced," said Donnetta Kidd, 32, a niece of Smoot. "It's just the beginning of it."

In the days after Smoot's death, which was ruled a homicide, state corrections officials condemned the actions of officers involved in the May 14 altercation.

Eight officers were fired in June, including the three who were indicted yesterday. Those three are: Dameon C. Woods, 33, of Rosedale; Nathaniel D. Colbert, 42, of West Baltimore; and James L. Hatcher, 43, of Northwest Baltimore.

The three men were being held in undisclosed detention facilities outside Baltimore, a city state's attorney's office spokesman said. Their bail reviews will be held in Baltimore City Circuit Court next week, officials said.

Prosecutors did not release additional details yesterday of how Smoot was killed at the state-run facility on Madison Street. Smoot was being held on a warrant for not appearing in court to answer a theft charge when he was killed.

A picture of the chaotic circumstances of Smoot's death emerged over the days and weeks after he was badly beaten in his cell May 14. He died the next day at Johns Hopkins Hospital; relatives took pictures of his badly bruised and beaten head and body, and disseminated them to the news media, drawing near-instant attention to the incident.

The Sun has pieced together some of the events surrounding Smoot's death from interviews with correctional officers, detainees and the official termination notices.

Smoot resisted orders from three officers to return to his cell and began punching and kicking a male officer, who pushed Smoot into his cell. With about 40 inmates watching, one of the officers called a "code" - an alert that they needed help.

More than 20 officers rushed in. Detainees, standing outside the cell and on tables, watched as several officers pushed their way into the cell, and said they beat and stomped on Smoot.

One of the fired officers who was not indicted told investigators that he heard one of the indicted officers yelling to the inmates: "This is how it's done; this is what happens."

It was not clear how many officers struck Smoot. Several were inside the cell before, during and after Smoot's beating.

"While the officers punched, kicked and stomped the inmate, he lay on the floor on his back bleeding profusely from the mouth and nose," according to the official termination notice of one of the fired officers who was not indicted.

Smoot's death was investigated by the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services' Internal Investigative Unit, with help from the Maryland State Police. Officials said it involved interviews with roughly 100 people, including inmates and officers.

"The internal investigative unit worked very quickly and very thoroughly within the first two or three days after this man's death," Mark Vernarelli, a Public Safety spokesman, said yesterday. "They identified the officers they believed involved, and the officers were dismissed."

Smoot's death also triggered a federal civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice, though it could not be determined yesterday what stage it was in.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy endured criticism from Smoot's relatives in the months between the death and yesterday's indictments. The family held a monthly vigil outside Central Booking to keep public attention focused on the death.

"To me, it was a sigh of relief to hear that someone had been indicted," said Gail Smoot, 31, a niece of the victim. "We went over three months without knowing if anyone will be indicted for the killing of my uncle. We just hope with those three [indictments], more will come."

Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for Jessamy, said that prosecutors and investigators had to review and consider taped and written transcripts from dozens of witnesses.

Margaret T. Burns, another spokesperson for Jessamy, said officials do not anticipate other indictments in the case.

Ed Rothstein, board member of the Maryland Association of Correctional and Security Employees union, which represents two of the fired officers who were not indicted, said they are fighting to get their jobs back because "they didn't do anything wrong."

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