December 17, 2014 / 8:53 PM / 3 years ago

Jury finds former New York jail guard guilty in inmate death

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former supervising guard at New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex was found guilty on Wednesday of refusing to summon medical attention for a mentally ill inmate who died after swallowing corrosive detergent.

Jurors in U.S. District Court in Manhattan delivered their verdict after deliberating for less than a day.

The former guard, Terrence Pendergrass, immediately shook his head while family members in the courtroom sobbed. He was facing a federal civil rights charge in connection with the 2012 death of the prisoner, Jason Echevarria.

Pendergrass faces up to 10 years in prison. A sentencing hearing was scheduled for April. His attorney said he would appeal.

The prisoner’s father, Ray Echevarria, 68, said after the verdict was announced that it was “a sad ending.” Prosecutors said other inmates heard Echevarria crying for help after he swallowed the detergent known as a “soap ball.”

“I can’t bring my son back,” he said.

Pendergrass’s lawyer, Sam Braverman, said he would appeal the verdict, which he said was not supported by the evidence in the case.

Braverman suggested that jurors may have been influenced by protests in New York over recent cases of alleged police misconduct, including in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island.

“It made it a very tough time for a law enforcement officer to be on trial,” he said.

Prosecutors said Pendergrass, 50, made a deliberate decision not to help Echevarria, who was given the “soap ball” to clean his cell after a sewage backup in August 2012.

Echevarria swallowed the ammonium chloride, and charging documents said Pendergrass was told about the situation by two guards but failed to arrange for medical care. Echevarria was found dead the next morning, the documents said.

Politicians, prisoners’ rights advocates and federal prosecutors have called for improved conditions at Rikers, a jail complex that houses more than 11,000 people.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the conviction and reforms his office is pursuing should help prevent tragedies like Echevarria’s death. In August he reported a pattern of abuse of teenaged inmates, and threatened a lawsuit if changes were not made.

On Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the end of the use of solitary confinement to punish teenaged inmates at Rikers.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Alan Crosby, David Ingram and David Gregorio

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