MANHATTAN (CN) — Nearly four years after an incident that shocked New York’s prison island, a federal prosecutor told jurors Friday that the corrections officer on trial abused his position for a gruesome and fatal beating that killed a sick inmate.
“That’s what this case is about,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeanette Vargas said this morning. “It’s about an officer who was put in a position of power over others, and how he used that power to violate that man’s civil rights. How he abused that power to savagely kick that man to death.”
The dead man to whom the prosecutor referred was Ronald Spear, an inmate at Rikers Island with late-stage renal and kidney disease.
Brian Coll, 42, is accused of killing Spear with several kicks to the head on the early morning of Dec. 19, 2012.
Neither prosecutors nor the defense dispute that Spear provoked the corrections officer that morning after a doctor had canceled his appointment.
Sickly and bespectacled, Spear walked with a cane, and wore a bracelet classifying him as a fall risk.
Spear tried to kick Coll that morning, and then Coll punched the inmate, prosecutors say.
At that point, Vargas said, other guards then stepped in and restrained Spear face-down on the ground with his hands behind his back.
“That could have been the end of it,” Vargas said told the Manhattan jury. “That should have been the end of it, but that was not the end.”
Prosecutors say that Coll then started kicking a restrained and helpless Spear in the head, before lifting the inmate's face off the ground and telling him: “That's what you get for fucking with me.”
“Remember that I'm the one who did this to you,” Coll allegedly added.
The Bronx chief medical examiner determined the cause of Spear's death at age 52 to be "hypertensive cardiovascular disease, with 'physical altercation including blunt-force trauma to head' and diabetes mellitus as contributing factors,” according to court papers.
Coll’s defense attorney Joshua Dratel began his opening argument Friday by describing Spear’s death as a “tragedy” on multiple levels.
“It was a tragedy for Mr. Spear and his family,” he said. “It is now a tragedy for Mr. Coll’s family.”
Seizing upon the timeline, Dratel said: “This is about an altercation started by the inmate himself.”
Although the government will produce multiple eyewitnesses from the beating, Dratel denied that they would be able to prove that Coll kicked Spear in the head until he died. The defense attorney also attacked the credibility of the medical examiner’s findings.
“He has consistently changed his report to match the government’s theory of the case, as recently as Wednesday,” Dratel said, referring to the examiner.
Coll’s fellow guards Byron Taylor and Anthony Torres previously pleaded guilty to conspiring to cover-up the fatal beating, and prosecutors promised that they will take the stand to testify to what they saw.
Coll is charged with a civil-rights violation for excessive force, causing death. A conviction could saddle the ex-guard with a life sentence.
Prosecutors did not charge the federal murder statute, which only applies to “special maritime and territorial jurisdiction.”
Coll also faces two separate counts of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The case falls days after New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report finding that federal oversight over Rikers Island failed to keep violence in New York City jails from continuing to spike, including the rate of guards using force upon inmates.