State will pay $500,000 in death of prisoner

December 19, 2008|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

The state Board of Public Works has approved a $500,000 settlement for the family of an inmate killed in 2004 while officers attempted to subdue him using pepper spray at a Western Maryland prison. The family of Ifeanyi A. Iko had been seeking $28 million in a federal wrongful death lawsuit, which will now be dismissed.

The settlement - thought to be one of the largest Maryland awards in a prisoner death or injury case - was approved at Wednesday's board meeting. Gary Adler, the Iko family's attorney, said the settlement also includes a condition that the prison system revisit policies related to Iko's death.

"The family is extremely pleased with the settlement," Adler said. "It wasn't about money, and they feel vindicated by what's happened."

Iko, a 51-year-old Nigerian immigrant, was killed April 30, 2004, after being subdued by correctional officers at Western Correctional Institution in Cresaptown. The state medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, saying it had been caused by "chemical irritation of the airways by pepper spray," the placement of a mask over Iko's face and the way he was restrained.

In July 2004, an Allegany County grand jury chose not to indict any correctional officers involved in what prison officials called a "textbook cell extraction." But Lt. Joseph Mercer II, who led the state prison system's internal investigation into the inmate's death, acknowledged in a 2006 deposition related to the family's federal lawsuit that he did not preserve possibly crucial evidence - including video footage and clothing wet with pepper spray.

An FBI investigation into the incident concluded when the U.S. Department of Justice declined to prosecute, said Richard Wolf, a spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore field office. All other investigations appear to be closed.

Rick Binetti, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said the correctional officers involved in removing Iko from his cell and in the subsequent investigations were cleared of any wrongdoing. No one was fired, he said.

Two months after Iko's death, the state prison commissioner tightened guidelines on the use of pepper spray, saying that officers needed the approval of an assistant warden or warden to administer the spray. Previously, any senior-level supervisor could issue approval.

Binetti said the prison system would follow any directives in the settlement, though he said policies were reviewed immediately after Iko's death.

Iko, formerly a Prince George's County resident, had been in state prison since 1991, when he began serving a three-year sentence for drug distribution. The next year, he received an additional 20-year sentence for stabbing and biting a correctional officer in an Eastern Shore prison. That officer was later fired for his role in abusing another inmate at the same prison.

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