By Pete DeMola
PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (Reuters) - A New York correctional officer accused of helping two convicts escape from a maximum security prison in June pleaded not guilty on Wednesday at his arraignment on a series of charges related to the daring break-out.
Gene Palmer, 57, is accused of giving a screwdriver and pliers to two inmates who later escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, about 25 miles from the Canadian border in the Adirondack Mountains. In exchange, the veteran guard received paintings made by one of the inmates that he later burned in his backyard, prosecutors say.
With the defendant waiving his right to a secret grand jury proceeding to consider charges against him, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said the state was ready to go to trial. Judge Kevin Ryan of the Clinton County Court scheduled a pretrial conference on Jan. 8.
In an affidavit following his arrest, Palmer described a reciprocal relationship with the inmates, Richard Matt and David Sweat. In exchange for items like paints and pliers, Matt provided Palmer with insider information on prison life and what the guard described as "elaborate paintings."
At least some of the tools smuggled to the inmates, including a hacksaw and screwdriver bits, were hidden within frozen meat provided by Joyce Mitchell, another prison employee.
Palmer was not charged in connection with that contraband when he was arrested on June 24. But prosecutors on Wednesday added a second charge of promoting prison contraband against him related to those items.
All told, he now faces two felony counts of tampering with physical evidence and two felony counts of promoting prison contraband and a misdemeanor count of official misconduct.
“These charges underscore his apparent culpability in the systemic breakdown of security processes and procedures that led to the escape," Catherine Leahy Scott, the state inspector general, said in a statement after the arraignment.
Palmer, dressed in a charcoal-colored suit, did not speak during the brief hearing. His lawyer, William Dreyer, said negotiations with prosecutors were underway, suggesting the possibility of a plea deal.
Following his arrest in June, Palmer turned down a plea agreement and opted have his case heard by a grand jury.
The breakout of Richard Matt and David Sweat remains under investigation from the state’s inspector general office. After a three-week manhunt, Matt, 49, was fatally shot by a federal agent and Sweat, 35, was captured two days later.
Joyce Mitchell, 51, the prison employee who admitted helping the two convicted murderers by smuggling them tools, was sentenced to 2-1/3 to seven years in prison in September.
Palmer remains free on $25,000 bail. He is on administrative leave from the prison, where he earned $74,644 a year.
Mitchell may have to pay nearly $120,000 in restitution costs stemming from repairs to the cell blocks from which the two convicted killers escaped. A restitution hearing has been set for Friday.
(Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by David Gregorio)