Trial of 10 Rikers Officers Charged in 2012 Inmate Beating to Begin Soon

© Seth Wenig/Associated Press Margaret Burton, the mother of Jahmal Lightfoot, a former inmate, outside court last month.
© Seth Wenig/Associated Press Margaret Burton, the mother of Jahmal Lightfoot, a former inmate, outside court last month.

It was a brutal crime, even for Rikers Island. 

Jahmal Lightfoot, an inmate in one of the jails at the complex, was tackled to the ground and kicked repeatedly until both his eye sockets were fractured and his nose was broken. His attackers were not other prisoners, but five members of an elite unit of correction officers carrying out an order from Eliseo Perez Jr., an assistant chief for security, Bronx prosecutors have said.

Mr. Lightfoot provoked Mr. Perez’s ire that day in July 2012 by daring to stare at him as correction officers were checking inmates for weapons. “This guy thinks he’s tough,” Mr. Perez reportedly said, before ordering other officers to kick his teeth in, according to prosecutors.

Now Mr. Perez and nine others — all current or former correction officers — face a number of criminal charges, including attempted gang assault, assault, tampering with physical evidence and official misconduct, in connection with the beating of Mr. Lightfoot and the alleged attempt to cover up the attack. Nine of the officers are on trial in State Supreme Court in the Bronx. The 10th, Michael Pollard, who has medical problems, will be tried separately.

The case against the correction officers highlights a culture of violence and abuse that seems to permeate Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, at a time when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others are calling for it to be closed. The new Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, a fellow Democrat who has made Rikers Island one of her top priorities, is opening an office on the island to prosecute crimes committed there more quickly and effectively.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, and Joseph Ponte, the commissioner of the Correction Department, have also adopted a plan to reduce violence at city jails. “Commissioner Ponte has zero tolerance for the mistreatment of any inmate,” Eve Kessler, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a statement. “The vast majority of our officers carry out their duties with care and integrity, and we are taking many steps to ensure that all staff adhere to the highest professionalism.”

Mr. Perez retired in 2013, as did another officer charged in the case, Gerald Vaughn, in 2014, according to department records.

The seven others on trial — Harmon Frierson, Dwayne Maynard, Tobias Parker, Jose Parra, Jeffrey Richard, Alfred Rivera, David Rodriguez — were suspended in June 2013. At the recommendation of a departmental review committee, they returned to work last month on modified duty, with no contact with inmates.

If they are found guilty of criminal charges, the officers will be fired, according to department policy. If they are found not guilty, they could still face disciplinary action by the department.

As the correction officers’ trial gets underway, it poses logistical hurdles for an overtaxed Bronx criminal courthouse. Though nine of the officers are being tried together, only six will have their cases decided by a jury. The other three — and Mr. Frierson, Mr. Maynard and Mr. Vaughn — have opted for a bench trial before Justice Steven Barrett, who is presiding over the trial.

Last week, Justice Barrett told one pool of potential jurors that the trial involved many individuals and witnesses and could last up to three months. More than half of the potential jurors raised their hands seeking be excused. Justice Barrett weighed each request individually, sometimes after hearing from lawyers clustered around his bench.

Justice Barrett, at the request of one defense lawyer, has also issued an order barring all of the lawyers involved in the trial from talking publicly about the case. “I’ve never been gagged before and I don’t think it’s a violation of the gag order to say I’m gagged,” said Robert J. Feldman, one of the defense lawyers, his frustration visible outside the courtroom last week. Mr. Feldman, who represents Mr. Perez, also writes for The Huffington Post.

Other defense lawyers and their clients, as well as prosecutors, declined to comment as they left the courtroom, some of them citing the judge’s order.

If convicted, the correction officers accused of beating Mr. Lightfoot could face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison for the most serious assault charge, attempted gang assault in the first degree. They face a maximum sentence of four years in prison for the charges related to the alleged attempted cover-up, including falsifying business records.

Mr. Lightfoot, who is expected to testify, was released on parole in 2014 after being sentenced to up to four years in prison for robbery, state records show. Sanford Rubenstein, a lawyer who represents Mr. Lightfoot in a pending civil lawsuit against New York City, also declined to be interviewed, citing the order of silence.

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Source: The New York Times | WINNIE HU