Jury finds former New York jail guard guilty in inmate death

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 16, 2014 4:38 PM

By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former supervising guard at New York City's Rikers Island jail complex was found guilty on Wednesday on a federal charge that he deliberately ignored the medical needs of a mentally ill inmate who died after swallowing corrosive detergent.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Manhattan delivered their verdict after deliberating for less than a day.

The former guard, Terrence Pendergrass, faces up to 10 years in prison in connection with the 2012 death of prisoner Jason Echevarria. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for April.

Echevarria's father, Ray Echevarria, 68, said after the verdict was announced that it was a sad ending to his son's life. "I can't bring my son back," he said.

Pendergrass's lawyer, Sam Braverman, said he would appeal the verdict, which he said was not supported by the evidence in the case.

Braverman suggested that the protests in New York over recent cases of alleged police misconduct, including in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, influenced the jurors.

"It made it a very tough time for a law enforcement officer to be on trial," he said.

Prosecutors said Pendergrass, 50, made a deliberate decision not to help Echevarria, who was given a packet of the detergent known as a "soap ball" to clean his cell after a sewage backup in August 2012.

Echevarria swallowed the ammonium chloride, and inmates heard him screaming for help, charging documents said. Pendergrass was told about the situation by two guards but failed to arrange for medical care for Echevarria, who was found dead the next morning, the documents said.

Politicians, prisoners' rights advocates and federal prosecutors have called for improved conditions at Rikers, a jail complex that houses more than 11,000 people.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in August said his office had found a pattern of excessive force used against teenaged inmates, and he threatened a lawsuit if changes were not made.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Alan Crosby and David Ingram)