NEW YORK (AP) — A former Rikers Island guard was convicted Thursday of violating the civil rights of an ailing inmate who died after he was repeatedly kicked in the head while restrained on the floor outside a jail doctor’s office.
Brian Coll, of Smithtown, was convicted in the December 2012 death of 52-year-old Ronald Spear. He was pinned by other guards while Coll kicked him, causing brain bleeding, evidence showed.
Prosecutors said the victim, who was being held on a burglary charge, had become agitated because he could not immediately see a doctor. He suffered from kidney disease and diabetes and often walked with a cane.
Coll also was convicted of obstruction of justice, falsifying records and conspiring to cover up the incident.
Prosecutors presented evidence that Coll displayed a framed newspaper article about the case, including his photo, in his bedroom.
“Coll killed Spear by repeatedly kicking him in the head as he lay restrained on the ground, telling him before he died not to forget who did this to him,” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “The FBI investigators and career prosecutors on this case did not forget. And today, neither did the jury.”
Defense attorney Sam Schmidt said he and his client were disappointed with the verdict and planned to appeal. He said the evidence showed that Spear “was in the process of some type of arrhythmia leading to cardiac death” before any blows occurred.
“The manner the government developed and argued their case to the jury was much more on sympathy than on facts,” Schmidt said.
The trial came amid calls for reform of the 400-acre island in the East River that holds most of the city’s 10,000 inmates. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for the jail complex to be replaced. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat like Cuomo, has said calls to close Rikers are “noble” but possibly impractical given financial and logistical realities.
The push for reform began in 2014 after The Associated Press reported on dozens of deaths that highlighted poor supervision, questionable medical care and failure to prevent suicides. Those deaths included a homeless ex-Marine who essentially baked to death in a hot cell and a mentally ill man who sexually mutilated himself while locked up alone for seven days.
Last year, Bharara announced a deal to reduce widespread violence at Rikers through the installation of 8,000 surveillance cameras, retraining of correction officers, punishment of guards for excessive force and a court-appointed monitor.
The monitor, Steve Martin, said in October that Rikers guards strike too many inmates in the head, a tactic meant only as a last resort because it can be fatal.