Guard Pleads Guilty to Lying About Rikers Death

     MANHATTAN (CN) — Though prosecutors said he had a front-row view as a fellow guard delivered blows that killed a sick inmate at Rikers Island, former corrections officer Byron Taylor insisted before investigators, prosecutors and a grand jury that he saw nothing.
     The incident drew massive attention to an epidemic of abuse at Rikers Island, and Taylor admitted Tuesday before a federal judge that he lied.
     Witnesses now cooperating with the government saw Taylor’s hands restraining Ronald Spears in the final moments of the inmate’s life.
     Suffering from advanced kidney disease, Spears walked with a cane, required regular dialysis, wore glasses, and had a bracelet indicating that he was a fall risk. Prosecutors say he had wanted to see a doctor on Dec. 19, 2012.
     The inmate was allegedly upset about the wait for his care when he got into a profanity-laced argument at around 5 a.m. that soon had guard Brian Coll punching Spears in the face.
     Prosecutors said Taylor had been spotted as one of the guards restraining Spears while Coll repeatedly kicked the sick inmate in the head, a beating that killed him.
     Taylor admitted today to obstruction of justice and perjury, not any role in that onslaught.
     A 32-year-old Brooklyn native, Taylor had initially pleaded not guilty in October 2015.
     His deal with the government reduces what could have 25 years of imprisonment for two of the charges of his indictment to a likely sentence of between 15 and 25 months.
     “I would also like to apologize to all parties involved,” Taylor read from a carefully worded statement, which did not mention the Spears family by name.
     “Since my arrest, I have been doing everything to try to make this right and move forward in life,” Taylor added. “Today is me accepting responsibility for my wrongdoing.”
     When the case was unsealed in June 2015, another guard named Anthony Torres already had been cooperating with the government. Taylor’s plea agreement though has no obligation to assist prosecutors in the Coll case that remains pending.
     Taylor’s attorney Kiera Fitzpatrick declined to comment after the hearing as she silently left the courthouse.
     Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte, who was not yet in office at the time of Spears’ death, revealed in a statement that Taylor will no longer have any place on the Rikers force.
     “We have zero tolerance for any illegal behavior on the part of staff, and this officer will be terminated,” Ponte said.
     Pending his prosecution, Taylor had been suspended without pay.
     Weeks after prosecutors unveiled this case, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara announced a settlement that promised wide-ranging reforms on Rikers Island, including increased video surveillance, training for the guards and federal monitoring.
     He touted the guilty plea this afternoon. “Taylor lied to a federal grand jury and together with others concocted a story that blamed the victim — who had serious physical ailments — for starting an altercation with correction officers,” Bharara said in a statement. “This office is committed to ensuring that incarcerated people are treated fairly and protected from abuse by the correction officers sworn to both guard and protect them.”
     New York City released statistics last month showing decreased violence since that time, but the New York Daily News reported that this is because Rikers bosses “purge” violent incidents to create an illusion of progress.
     Ponte insisted that the headway is real in a statement.
     “We are confident that our many reforms are yielding a quality staff in which all New Yorkers can take pride,” he said.
     An attorney for Coll, who still faces the possibility of life imprisonment if convicted at trial, declined to comment.
     Coll’s trial is slated to begin on Oct. 18.
     U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska will sentence Taylor on Dec. 20.

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