Manhattan U.S. Attorney and FBI Announce Charges Against Three Correction Officers in Beating Death of Inmate at Rikers Island
Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Diego Rodriguez, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced today the unsealing of criminal charges against three New York City Correction Officers in the death of Ronald Spear, a pre-trial detainee at Rikers Island. BRIAN COLL, then a correction officer on Rikers Island, was charged with repeatedly kicking Mr. Spear in the head while he was fully restrained and lying prone on the floor, in violation of his rights under the United States Constitution. The two other officers involved in the incident, BYRON TAYLOR and ANTHONY TORRES, are, together with COLL, charged with obstruction of justice related offenses for covering up COLL’s assault, which resulted in the death of Mr. Spear. COLL and TAYLOR were arrested this morning on charges contained in a Criminal Complaint and are expected to be presented in federal court later today. TORRES ultimately disclosed the attempted cover-up to federal investigators and pled guilty earlier this week to a Criminal Information charging obstruction of justice offenses, pursuant to a cooperation agreement with the Government.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Today, we announce more sad news out of Rikers Island. Specifically, we unseal charges against three correction officers alleging a killing and a cover-up. Both relate to the untimely death of Ronald Spear, a Rikers Island inmate who died in the early morning hours of December 19, 2012, after receiving a brutal beating. As I have said before, Rikers inmates, although walled off from the rest of society, are not walled off from the protections of our Constitution.”
Assistant Director-in-Charge Diego Rodriguez said: “The vast majority of law enforcement officials serve their communities with honor and integrity. But when an officer’s conduct exceeds the permissible use of force and violates a person’s civil rights, the foundation of our democracy is threatened. Today, we hear the call of Spear and other victims whose constitutionally protected rights have been abused and violated. We remember their collective plea for justice. And we vow never to forget our obligation to remove from the criminal justice system those who do not uphold the tenets of the legal system.”
According to the Complaint and Information unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:
Rikers Island is a jail complex, located in the Bronx, New York, maintained by the New York City Department of Correction. At the time of his death, Ronald Spear was a pretrial detainee incarcerated on Rikers Island in the North Infirmary Command, a facility housing detainees who have serious or chronic medical needs. Mr. Spear was suffering from end-stage renal disease, which required him to receive dialysis treatments. Mr. Spear wore a bracelet indicating that he was at “Risk of Fall” and typically walked with a cane.
In the early morning hours of December 19, 2012, Mr. Spear left the housing area in the infirmary unit in an attempt to see the on-duty doctor. Mr. Spear was stopped outside the doctor’s office by COLL. When Mr. Spear was informed that the doctor was not available to see him at that time, an altercation ensued. COLL punched Mr. Spear several times in the face and stomach, and Mr. Spear was then restrained by two other correction officers, ANTHONY TORRES and BYRON TAYLOR. While Mr. Spear was lying prone on the ground and was still restrained, COLL repeatedly kicked Spear in the head, even after TORRES attempted to shield the inmate’s head with his hand and shouted to COLL to stop. After COLL stopped kicking Mr. Spear, COLL lifted Mr. Spear’s head up, told him in substance not to forget who had done this to him, and then dropped Spear’s head to the ground. Mr. Spear was pronounced dead at the scene shortly after the assault.
Spear’s autopsy was conducted at the Bronx Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. The autopsy revealed that Spear had three recent contusions on his head. At least two of those contusions were what the Medical Examiner described as “above the hat line,” and were thus inconsistent with being sustained as part of a fall. One of the contusions involved what the Medical Examiner described as a “brain bleed” caused by the blunt force of the impact. The Medical Examiner confirmed that the placement of Spear’s head injuries was consistent with Spear being kicked in the head while he was lying prone on the ground.
After Spear’s death, COLL, TAYLOR, TORRES, and others covered up the true cause of Mr. Spear’s death by concocting a false story that turned Mr. Spear into the aggressor. Specifically, COLL falsely claimed that Mr. Spear had attacked him with a cane, and TORRES and an additional correction officer referred to in the Complaint as CW-1 agreed to support this false version of events and not to tell investigators of evidence that COLL had repeatedly kicked Mr. Spear in the head. Additionally—at the request of TAYLOR—COLL, TORRES, and CW-1 agreed to falsely claim that TAYLOR was not present for the incident. Consistent with their agreement, the conspirators filed false use of force reports with the Department of Correction and lied repeatedly to Department of Correction investigators, to the Bronx District Attorney, and, in TAYLOR’s case, to a federal grand jury.
The conspirators propagated this false version of events after being repeatedly advised by a Rikers captain and by representatives of the correction officers’ union to be “consistent” in the use of force reports the officers were required to submit following Spear’s death. The first draft of a use of force report by CW-1 was rejected by a captain because it did not match the version of events contained in reports by COLL and TORRES, and CW-1 was required to submit a revised report that was “consistent.” Additionally, when no cane was recovered from the crime scene—potentially calling into doubt COLL’s claim that Mr. Spear had attacked him with a cane—a Rikers captain simply directed a correction officer to take a cane from the supply area and pass it off to investigators as the cane used in the incident.
In his guilty plea yesterday before the Honorable Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska to obstruction of justice offenses, TORRES admitted that he had conspired with others to cover up the facts surrounding the death of Mr. Spear. TORRES was not charged with violating the civil rights of Mr. Spear and at one point sought to shield Mr. Spear from the attack.
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BRIAN COLL, 45, of Smithtown, New York, is charged with one count of deprivation of rights under color of law, which carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, one count of obstruction of justice, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, one count of filing false forms, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to file false forms, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
BYRON TAYLOR, 31, of Brentwood, New York, is charged with one count of obstruction of justice by lying to a federal grand jury, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, and one count of conspiracy to file false forms, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
ANTHONY TORRES, 49, of New Rochelle, New York, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and file false reports, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, and one count of filing a false report, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
The statutory maximum penalties are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as any sentencings of the defendants would be determined by the judge.
Mr. Bharara praised the investigative work of the FBI and the Criminal Investigators at the United States Attorney’s Office. Mr. Bharara also thanked the New York City Department of Correction, Investigative Division, and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office for their assistance in the investigation, which remains ongoing.
This case is being handled by the Office’s Civil Rights and Public Corruption Units. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brooke E. Cucinella and Jeannette A. Vargas are in charge of the prosecution.
The charges contained in the Complaint are merely accusations, and COLL and TAYLOR are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.