Rikers Island corrections officers Brian Coll and Byron Taylor were charged Wednesday with six combined counts for the December 2012 beating death of inmate Ronald Spear, according to an unsealed complaint against the officers.
On December 19, 2012, the 52-year-old Spear was found dead in the jail after suffering blunt force trauma to the head, according to his death certificate. His death was ruled a homicide.
At the time of his death, Spear was being held at Rikers uncharged while he awaited a hearing for a robbery arrest.
Officer Coll is charged with violating the Spear's civil rights when he allegedly attacked him after a verbal altercation between Spear and Coll erupted over Spear's medical treatment for severe kidney problems. Coll allegedly punched Spear, then kicked him repeatedly while he was restrained by other guards.
As Coll began repeatedly kicked Spear while other officers restrained him, Rikers officer Anthony Torres pleaded with Coll to stop. According to the complaint, Coll bent down and picked up Spear's head and said to him, "that's what you get for fucking with me" and "remember I'm the one who did this to you." Spear died minutes later while on the ground.
Coll and Officer Taylor are both charged with obstructing justice, falsifying reports, and conspiring with other corrections officers to cover up the beating.
According to the complaint, after the attack the officers present conspired with each other to cover up the assault "so that it would appear that the use of force was accidental or could be blamed on the victim himself." In their use of force reports, the officers present alleged that Spear attacked Cole with a cane. In addition, they omitted that Taylor was involved in the incident.
Taylor is also charged with lying to a Federal Grand Jury about his role in the alleged assault. Taylor previously testified that he was asleep at his post when the fight broke out and that he did not help restrain Spear while Coll kicked him.
Officer Torres has also been charged with one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice. The U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of New York said Wednesday that Torres has pleaded guilty to the charge and is cooperating with the government in its investigation.
"Today we announce more sad news out of Rikers Island," U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Wednesday at a press conference announcing the charges.
The announcement comes five days after the suicide of Kalief Browder, a former Rikers inmate who was arrested at age 16 and held at the jail uncharged for 1,000 days, spending 800 of those days in solitary confinement.
"We are grateful to the Department of Justice for their thorough investigation," Spear's family said in statement to BuzzFeed News. "We hope that this case will bring justice for the officers who killed Ronald and covered up his death and also shine a window of accountability into the violence and corruption that pervades Rikers Island."
At the press conference to announce the charges, Bharara emphasized that civil rights cases are "hard cases to bring" and are usually "downright impossible" without video evidence.
In discussing the conspiracy of the officers to cover up the assault on Spear, Bharara pointed to the detail that officers alleged that Spear attacked Coll with his cane.
"No cane was found at the scene," Bharara said.
According to the investigation, a new cane was procured from the supply closet and placed near the site of the attack.
According to the complaint, shortly after receiving medical treatment following the assault, Coll and two other unnamed officers met with members of the Corrections Officers' Benevolent Association. The union representatives stressed the importance of Coll and the others "being consistent" on their use of force reports.
Bharara would not comment Wednesday on whether other officers are under investigation, however, he said "the investigation does remain open" into the Spear killing.
The federal investigation ran in conjunction with another criminal investigation by the Bronx District Attorney's office. It was prompted by a letter from Spear's family and their lawyers.
In August 2013, Spear's family and the Legal Aid Society filed a lawsuit against the City and called for a federal investigation into Spear's death.
The family quoted other inmates in their lawsuit who claimed to witness the beating:
Two of the inmates — Jesse James and Shawn Fraser — said in statements that Mr. Spear often complained about his medical care. He had a disagreement with an officer about his treatment, they said, and after he asked to see a captain, the officer grabbed his arm and hit him several times, knocking him down.
The officer then repeatedly kicked him in the face and chest while two other officers restrained him, the inmates said.
A third inmate, Julius Newton, said in his statement that he was awakened by the sounds of officers shouting and another inmate saying "something like, 'They're stomping him!' " Mr. Newton looked and saw an officer "kicking Ronald, who was lying on the ground" and not moving, according to his statement.
In May 2014, Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson announced that the correction officers involved in the alleged beating would not face charges.