Parents file suit over prison inmate's death

They allege negligence, poor security in the strangulation of their son while he was being transported


The parents of a prison inmate allegedly strangled by a fellow inmate as they were being transported on a bus filed suit against the state and corrections officials in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday, blaming their negligence as well as inadequate security measures for the death of their son.

The suit seeks $51 million in damages and more than $7,000 in funeral expenses. But Melissa Rodriguez, the mother of 20-year-old Philip E. Parker Jr., who died as he was being taken from a court hearing in Hagerstown to the prison he was assigned to in Baltimore, said her suit is about more than money: It's about answers.

"I'm trying to move forward in my grieving process, and I can't until I find out what happened to my son and why they allowed it to happen to my son," she said. "I can't have any happy memories. All I see is my child fighting for his life on that bus."

The suit does not name as a defendant Kevin G. Johns Jr., 23, the twice-convicted killer who has been charged with first-degree murder in Parker's death. Mary Ann Saar, the secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of the Division of Correction, are both named, as well as 10 officers on duty the night Parker was killed.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for Saar and Sizer, said they had not seen the suit and could not comment.

Parker and Johns appeared in a Hagerstown courtroom on Feb. 1 last year. Parker, serving a 3 1/2 -year sentence for a robbery involving a pellet gun, testified in a sentencing hearing for Johns, who strangled his 16-year-old cellmate at the Maryland Correctional Training Center near Hagerstown in January 2004.

At the hearing, where Johns received a life sentence, he vowed to kill again unless he was assigned to a psychiatric treatment center. Johns is accused of strangling Parker early the next morning on the return trip to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, known as Supermax. A trial has not yet been held.

It remains unclear how Parker could have been strangled by a fellow inmate who was supposed to be shackled. The suit states that Johns should have been more closely watched, given his history of killing, which includes two convictions.

"At some time during the transport of inmates from Hagerstown to Baltimore, the deceased was strangled, assaulted, battered and had his throat slashed," according to the court filings. "This, despite a prolonged struggle, yelling for help, suspicious movements and actions by a number of inmates, and other conduct which should have led to prompt measures being taken to stop the brutal attack and to save the deceased's life.

"The failure of the correctional staff to provide timely and proper assistance to the deceased in his helpless condition amounted to deliberate indifference on the part of all defendants."

The suit also alleges that in removing Parker from the bus after the attack, correctional officers were less than careful, pulling him "by his legs down the aisle of the bus, and dragged off the bus with his head striking each step and onto the concrete where the bus had stopped."

The family's attorney, Michael A. Mastracci, said correctional officials must be held accountable.

"They have all these written procedures on paper," he said. "They don't follow their own procedures."

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