Guard is convicted in detainee's death

Second officer acquitted in Smoot killing

October 13, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,sun reporter

A former correctional officer was convicted yesterday of second-degree murder in a stomping death at the city jail, a crime so brutal that eight guards were fired for lying, and a case so chaotic that two guards were cleared of criminal wrongdoing after defense attorneys alleged a cover-up hatched by their colleagues.

Dameon C. Woods' murder conviction - a rarity for a public safety officer - stands as a testament to the brutality of the melee that led to Raymond K. Smoot's May 2005 death and to the problems engulfing the state-run Central Booking and Intake Center.

Woods, 34, was convicted of murder with a depraved heart, or extreme disregard for human life, and two counts of assault, and could face up to 30 years in prison. Circuit Court Judge John M. Glynn set sentencing for Dec. 12.

Glynn revoked Woods' bail, and Woods was taken away with his feet and hands shackled.

James L. Hatcher, a co-defendant in the three-week trial, was found not guilty on all charges. Glynn threw out charges against the third officer, Nathan D. Colbert, before the case went to the jury. Both officers have been fired.

Woods and Hatcher cried as the verdicts were read, and Glynn, in an unusual move, held the jurors as the courtroom cleared. Jurors, who deliberated for five days, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Standing near the steps of the Clarence M. Mitchell Courthouse, Hatcher thanked God for his exoneration and then expressed sorrow for the victim. "My heart goes out to the Smoot family," Hatcher said. "It's just a tragedy."

Despite convicting only one person in an attack that a forensics expert testified had to have been done by multiple people, prosecutors said they were pleased with the verdict.

Assistant State's Attorney Mark Cohen said prosecutors do not plan to seek charges against other correctional officers, some of whom were found during the trial to have had possible blood and human tissue of Smoot on their boots. "We understand the jury's verdict, and we can accept it," Cohen said. "We feel we've done as much as we can do with this homicide. We got the main person involved, and that was Mr. Woods."

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy stood next to Cohen outside the courtroom, where she congratulated her workers and said she will continue to fight for abused detainees.

"This highlights the challenge we all face," she said. "This man, an inmate at Central Booking, did not deserve this. We want to make sure the prisoners are safe."

Correctional officers convicted in the death of a detainee are rare.

Stephen Z. Meehan, principal counsel with the Prisoner Rights Information System of Maryland for 10 years, said he cannot remember a single time when a state correctional officer was convicted in an inmate's death.

"It's hard enough to prove a civil case," he said. "The moons have to line up."

But he called Smoot's death "the most horrendous case of physical abuse" in a prison and said the jury must have seen that "something went really bad in there. This was total brutality."

Meehan said the only case comparable to Smoot's - "but not nearly as brutal" - was the April 2004 death of a Western Maryland prisoner.

Months later, an Allegany County grand jury decided not to indict any correctional officers in what the medical examiner ruled was the homicide of prisoner Ifeanyi A. Iko. Guards had sprayed him with an irritant and then covered him with a face mask, asphyxiating him.

Woods' attorney, Margaret Mead, said she will file a motion for a new trial, calling the verdict the worst miscarriage of justice she has seen in her 16 years of practice.

Mead argued that her client was set up by a clique of correctional officers who socialized regularly and were involved in the attack on Smoot, who was 51. The officers, some of whom were fired the day after the attack, testified to having an unauthorized meeting later, where Mead says the plan to finger her client was hatched.

There was no blood or DNA evidence linking Woods or any of the defendants to the attack.

"He is just devastated," Mead said. "His entire family is devastated."

Mead said the jury's decision will have negative effects on an officer's ability to subdue an inmate. She said officers might hesitate to respond to assistance calls.

"Every correctional officer is going to think, `Oh, my God, if stuff gets out of hand, I'm going to get blamed for it.' If this verdict stands, how can any correctional officers feel safe in an institution?" Mead asked.

Prosecutors faced a number of hurdles in this case, including uncooperative former officers who served as witnesses. The prosecution called several officers who failed to identify anyone responsible for Smoot's death in the aftermath of the killing, then backtracked days later and told varying stories on the witness stand.

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