NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City jail guard accused of ignoring the pleas of a dying Rikers Island inmate after he swallowed a toxic soap ball is being tried in federal court.
Jury selection began Monday for Terrence Pendergrass, who was demoted from a captain to a correction officer following Jason Echevarria's death in a now-closed solitary confinement cell for mentally ill inmates. He was arrested in March and charged with one count of depriving the 25-year-old man's rights.
He has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer declined to comment. He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Federal authorities contend Pendergrass ignored two other correction officers and a pharmacy technician who were concerned after they learned that Echevarria had swallowed the detergent soap ball in 2012. It was given to the inmate for cleanup after a sewage backup caused his and other cells to flood.
In a complaint, an FBI agent wrote that when told by a jail guard that Echevarria needed medical attention, Pendergrass said he should only be notified if the guard "needed help with an extraction of an inmate from a cell or if there was a dead body." Video footage also shows Pendergrass peering into Echeverria's cell before walking away, the complaint says.
After swallowing the detergent, Echevarria, who had bipolar disorder and was being held on a burglary charge, was left for hours unattended and was discovered the next day already dead. His death was ruled a homicide, though prosecutors in the Bronx did not bring any charges.
Josh Kelner, an attorney who has filed a $20 million lawsuit on behalf of Echevarria's family, said his father, Ramon Echevarria, planned to attend every day of the trial.
"Nobody should be above the law just because they wear a uniform," he said.
Pendergrass' federal trial comes during a time of increased scrutiny at Rikers, a massive jail complex that Mayor Bill de Blasio has described as deeply troubled and in dire need of reform.
In August, federal attorneys in Manhattan released a scathing review of juvenile facilities at Rikers, finding guards regularly violated the constitutional rights of 16- to 18-year-old inmates by using excessive force.
And last week, the mayor announced the recommendations of a task force called after a series of reports by The Associated Press detailing problems at Rikers, including the gruesome deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates.
De Blasio plans to spend $130 million over four years to improve the conditions for the mentally ill, diverting many of them away from jail altogether. Nearly 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 daily New York inmates have a mental health diagnosis.