MANHATTAN (CN) — Former Rikers Island guard Brian Coll faces life in prison after a federal jury found him guilty of having killed a sickly inmate named Ronald Spear and then covering it up.
For stepmother Margarette Spear, the guilty-on-all-counts verdict brings relief both to the family and her son’s memory.
“My son can rest in peace, and our family can go on with our lives,” she said.
Spear’s sister Deneen Cobbs voiced relief as well.
“I’m just so happy,” Cobbs said in an interview outside the courtroom.
“I feel like he’s watching,” she added, referring to Spear, who died in a Rikers Island infirmary on the early morning of Dec. 19, 2012.
Spear had been seeking treatment for his late-stage renal and kidney disease when he got into a heated argument with Coll that turned physical.
Prosecutors say other Rikers guards had already de-escalated the situation – holding Spear face-down on the ground with his hands behind his back – when Coll started kicking the inmate in the face repeatedly.
Witnesses told the court that just before the inmate died, Coll had pulled up his head to deliver a warning.
“That’s what you get for fucking with me,” Coll was quoted as saying. “Remember that I’m the one who did this to you.”
In connection to Thursday’s verdict, 42-year-old Coll could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Coll’s prosecution gained widespread attention amid Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s crackdown on what he called a “Lord of the Flies” culture of guard-on-inmate abuse at Rikers Island.
“Today, a unanimous jury in Manhattan federal court affirmed that the protections of the U.S. Constitution extend into the walls of our prisons, including Rikers Island,” Bharara said in a statement, echoing an analogy he made earlier this year at a press conference.
“For his brutal and heartless beating of 52-year-old Ronald Spear, a sickly Rikers inmate, and his lies to cover it up, Brian Coll now stands convicted of serious federal crimes,” Bharara added.
At summations Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brooke Cucinella told the court that, for years after the jailhouse killing, Coll kept a Village Voice newspaper article with a picture of his victim framed in his bedroom.
“Let’s call it what it is: a trophy,” Cucinella said.
In addition to the newspaper article, Cucinella said the guard had joked to his colleagues that he should get a tear-drop tattoo, a well-known gang symbol to signify that one has killed someone.
Though the jury heard from multiple eyewitnesses that Coll killed Spear, Coll’s attorney Sam Schmidt spoke only of the “alleged” blows in his closing argument.
Cucinella urged the jury not to flinch from bringing Coll to justice. “We’re here to finally, finally hold the defendant, that man, accountable,” she said on Wednesday, pointing at Coll.
Indeed, the jury showed little hesitation in convicting, ending their deliberations within four hours.
For Coll’s attorney, those four hours showed the jury’s consideration of a key defense argument that the guard’s beating did not cause Spear’s death.
Jurors rejected that defense ultimately, but Schmidt told reporters that U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska’s instruction on “causing death” with figure into Coll’s appeal.
“The manner that the government developed their case and argued their case to the jury was much more on sympathy than on the facts,” Schmidt told reporters.
After the verdict, Preska immediately remanded Coll to a federal prison and scheduled his sentencing for April 24.
Schmidt said that the news barely fazed his client. “He’s sort of numb,” the attorney said.
Today’s verdict will compound the flurry of criticism on Rikers Island’s jails and prisons, which New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other high-profile critics want to shutter.
Those who advocate closing Rikers note that its physical separation from the rest of the city makes it uniquely vulnerable to impunity.
Vigorous prosecution and regulation from Bharara’s office has failed thus far to reduce the culture of violence at Rikers. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer reported late last month that Rikers guards used force on inmates 14 percent more often as compared with other correctional facilities, despite the terms of a settlement New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reached to reduce these altercations.