Rikers jail staff beat defenseless New York inmate ‘like an animal’: prosecutor
Correction officers beat and kicked a defenseless inmate in the head “like an animal,” a prosecutor said Wednesday, summing up his arguments in a two-month trial spotlighting abuse at a notorious New York jail.
Nine officers went on trial in March accused of the savage beating of Jahmal Lightfoot, at the time a 27-year-old inmate convicted of armed robbery, and the cover-up of his night-time assault on July 11, 2012.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday in a verdict to be closely watched given long-running allegations of systemic violence at Rikers Island, one of the largest municipal jails in America.
Elected Democratic officials have called for the complex, which houses thousands of inmates, to be shut down, amid a national campaign against police brutality and demands for criminal justice reform.
The defendants, all former or current correction officers, face prison terms if convicted of a raft of charges that include attempted gang assault, falsifying records and official misconduct.
They have pleaded not guilty.
“The crime is horrific, it’s brutal, it’s savage. They treat him like an animal,” said assistant Bronx district attorney Lawrence Piergrossi on Wednesday at the Bronx Supreme Court.
“They never thought in a million years that they would be here when they schemed and planned this cover-up.”
“Your job is to find them guilty,” he told the jury who will be instructed by Judge Steven Barrett on Thursday.
– Kicked and punched –
Piergrossi spent more than three hours making a painstaking summation of the assault and alleged cover-up, and sought to demolish attempts by the defense to pick holes in the prosecution and question the credibility of Lightfoot and other witnesses called to the stand.
Lawyers for the nine defendants declined to present any witnesses, arguing that the prosecution failed to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecutors say Eliseo Perez, an assistant chief of security, wanted to make an example out of Lightfoot, ordering officers to “kick his fucking teeth in” in response to yet another inmate slashing at a time of record violence at Rikers Island that made officers look bad.
Perez colluded with Gerald Vaughn, a captain, and subordinate officers carried out the assault, Piergrossi said.
They allegedly threw Lightfoot to the ground in a search pen shielded from surveillance cameras and where no one could witness the assault.
Piergrossi read Wednesday from Lightfoot’s testimony, given over five days during the trial.
“I was getting kicked and punched all in my face, my eyes, my nose, my mouth,” he said, quoting Lightfoot. Officers pinned him down, holding his arms over his head and keeping his legs locked down, he said.
“Every time I tried to open my eyes I was getting kicked or swung at,” read Piergrossi.
“It happened six minutes and 45 seconds after chief Perez ordered them to kick his teeth out,” the prosecutor added.
– Blood –
By the time Lightfoot saw a doctor, his eyes were swollen shut, he had trouble breathing and blood was coming out of his nose and mouth, said Piergrossi.
The jury was shown a picture of his battered face, with huge bruises under his eyes — taken at the hospital the next day.
One of the defendants was allegedly grazed in the assault.
But the prosecution said the officers concocted the story and planted a piece of metal on Lightfoot detached from a piece of their kit to justify their beating.
Piergrossi disputed the idea that Lightfoot attacked the officer and called the injury “a scratch” that would have been impossible to inflict under the circumstances described.
A jury will determine the guilt or innocence of six defendants. The other three have opted for the judge to reach a verdict. A tenth defendant will be tried separately.
In 2014, a US federal investigation uncovered what prosecutors called a “pervasive and deep-seated culture of violence” at Rikers Island and called the facility a “broken institution” for teenage inmates.