Officer stomped detainee, court told

September 21, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,sun reporter

A correctional officer testified in Baltimore Circuit Court yesterday that he saw one of his former co-workers stomping a detainee during a melee at the downtown booking center last year that ended with the prisoner beaten to death.

The officer, Okechkwu Okeke, said he yelled at Dameon C. Woods to back off from Raymond K. Smoot in the May 25 fracas at the Central Booking and Intake Center. Woods, along with Nathan D. Colbert and James L. Hatcher, have been charged with second-degree murder. All three have been fired.

"I never believed my co-worker could do something like that," said Okeke, who testified wearing his uniform.

The death of the 51-year-old prisoner spurred federal and state investigators to look into the case and focused attention on the troubles of the overcrowded facility. Central Booking is the first stop for people arrested by police and is supposed to be a temporary holding center for people awaiting initial bail hearings.

Prosecutors singled out Okeke as a key witness during opening statements yesterday. Assistant State Attorney Mark Cohen said Okeke was the first officer to arrive after Smoot became uncooperative when two female correctional officers tried to put him in a cell.

Smoot argued with Okeke, the prosecutor said, and Smoot knocked off the correctional officer's glasses. An officer in the lobby called for backup, and about 10 officers rushed the cell where Smoot was being detained and took him to the ground, Okeke said.

Okeke said he was pushed out of the way when the other officers arrived, but he saw Woods stomping Smoot and said he recognized Colbert, along with another officer, leaving the cell afterward. Woods' defense attorney, Margaret Mead, questioned how Okeke could be so certain of what he saw when his glasses were on the ground and broken.

An inmate, William Tillman, testified that he heard Woods' stomp Smoot, then brag to dozens of inmates watching. "He said, `Ya'll see [Smoot] now. Go see him now.'"

Defense attorneys highlighted the lack of physical evidence placing their clients in the cell.

Mead said it was impossible for her client, Woods, to get from one end of the booking center, where he was stationed when the call for backup went out, to where the melee took place.

Andrew I. Alperstein, Hatcher's lawyer, accused correctional officials of having an unauthorized meeting shortly after Smoot's death during which he said they concocted a story blaming the defendants. He said investigators intimidated other workers at the center.

The prosecutor, Cohen, presented Smoot as an aging man who had health problems. He acknowledged he did not have much physical evidence against the defendants, but he blamed the correctional officials for not contacting state investigators in a timely manner, allowing a chance for evidence to be misplaced or tampered.

The prosecutor also focused on how savagely Smoot was beaten.

"It is not an easy place to work," Cohen said. "Regardless ... you just can't jump off the handle at an inmate, especially one like Mr. Smoot, who was 50 years old with health problems."

The trial is expected to last three weeks, and as many as 50 people could testify. Some of the eight correctional officers who were fired after Smoot's death are expected to take the stand, along with inmates and medical experts.

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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