MANHATTAN (CN) — Calling on jurors to convict a former Rikers Island corrections officer who kicked an inmate to death, a federal prosecutor harangued the guard for his lack of remorse.
For years after the jailhouse killing that rocked New York City, guard Brian Coll hung a framed Village Voice newspaper article in his bedroom with a picture of his victim.
“Let’s call it what it is: a trophy,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Brooke Cucinella said.
Ronald Spear died on Dec. 19, 2012, in the infirmary at Rikers Island where he had sought treatment for his late-stage renal and kidney disease.
Growing frustrated with his denial of care, Spear got into a heated altercation with corrections officer Brian Coll. It is undisputed that Spear started the fight, but also that the inmate was sickly and walked with a cane.
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.
Just before the inmate died, Coll allegedly pulled up Spear’s head to deliver a chilling warning.
“That’s what you get for fucking with me,” Coll has been quoted as saying. “Remember that I’m the one who did this to you.”
If a jury finds him responsible for Spear’s death, 42-year-old Coll could spend the rest of his life in prison.
During closing arguments this morning, Cucinella urged the jury to show no hesitation in convicting.
“We’re here to finally, finally hold the defendant, that man, accountable,” she said, pointing at Coll.
In addition to the newspaper article Coll had framed, 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.
Defense attorney Sam Schmidt’s summation proved markedly less dramatic by contrast. Multiple eyewitnesses have corroborated that Coll killed Spear, but Schmidt spoke only of the “alleged” blows.
“There was nothing done that was improper until this alleged kicking,” Schmidt said.
One key witness for the government, corrections officer Anthony Torres, wept on the witness stand for two days as he described Spear’s death and his own role in covering up what happened.
Depicting a brutal assault, Torres said Coll had kicked Spear’s head as if trying to make a “field goal” with a football.
But Schmidt insisted that the autopsy evidence proves otherwise.
“These are not football kicks,” Schmidt said. “There is absolutely no proof of what Mr. Torres says.”
Graphic autopsy photographs will likely loom large in deciding which side the jury believes. Prosecutor Cucinella flashed images of Spear’s skin pulled down his face to expose his brain, which appeared to be dotted with bloody hemorrhages.
New York City Medical Examiner Michael Greenberg testified that those red spots demonstrate that Spear had been alive before the beating.
“Without an active circulatory system, without the heart maintaining proper rhythm and proper output, any injury that has blood on it, that bled, occurred … at a time when there was still active circulation, in other words, when Mr. Spear was still alive,” the doctor said at trial.
Cucinella flashed that quotation on a screen for the jury to deflate a key defense argument: that the chronically ill Spear had died of a heart failure that was unrelated to Coll.
“[Spear] was a man who was brutally, savagely kicked to death,” she said.
For Cucinella, that defense implied an argument that Spear was “worth less” than a healthy person.
“That can’t be what they’re suggesting,” the prosecutor said. “That’s unconscionable.”
Schmidt also blamed Spear for starting what became a deadly altercation.
Speaking of his client, Schmidt said: “We’re talking about a man who was attacked, who defended himself, and who was embarrassed and humiliated by a sick inmate putting him on the ground.”
In a rebuttal summation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Bell found the spinning of Spear’s memory reminiscent of a lyric from the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
“Let me tell you what I’d wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory,” George Washington’s character sings in the show. “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”
In these words, Bell found a mirror of Spear’s case. No longer alive to defend himself, Spear is having his story told by witnesses, medical experts and physical evidence.
“A chorus of witnesses who watched in horror as this vicious attack unfolded, and they too told his story,” Bell said.
Along with Torres, fellow correction officer Byron Taylor pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice before trial kicked off on Dec. 2. Taylor and Torres are awaiting sentencing for their charges.
U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska began delivering jury instructions in the early afternoon. Jury deliberations are expected to start before the end of the day.
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