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Judge Rules Texas Prisoner's Death a Result of Excessive Force

On January 27, 1997, a guard at the French Robertson Unit in Abilene, TX, showed up to search Gary Lee Crenshaw's cell. Crenshaw, 31, serving a 45-year sentence for possession with intent to deliver cocaine, returned from the shower and reportedly "became irate" when he saw his cell being tossed.

The guard, Mike Helm, claims Crenshaw took a swing at him. Another guard, Bradley Johnson, then joined Helm in "restraining" Crenshaw. After cuffing and shackling Crenshaw, the two guards asked if he was "prepared to cooperate." They received no response. Crenshaw was unconscious and had stopped breathing. He was taken to the infirmary where attempts at CPR were unsuccessful. He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Warden R.H. Drewry told reporters that there was no indication of wrongdoing. The warden said he interviewed several prisoners and guards who witnessed the incident, "and there's nothing in there that should cause us any concern." TDCJ spin doctor, Larry Todd, told reporters days later that it was possible that Crenshaw hit his head on the ground when the guards took him down. "That's one of the things the autopsy will be looking for," Todd told reporters.

The autopsy report, however, indicates that Crenshaw was handcuffed in "a possible hog-tie position," and was asphyxiated by the restraint guards used to tie him with.

On March 21, Taylor County Justice of the Peace Samuel Matta ruled that the death was a result of "excessive force." The ruling opened the possibility of criminal charges against Helm and Johnson. "Possible charges are, among others, justifiable homicide, negligent homicide and manslaughter," the judge said. Todd, the TDCJ PR flack, then informed local reporters that the TDCJ internal affairs investigation didn't substantiate that excessive force was used, but instead found the evidence was "inconclusive."

The two guards remained on duty, even after the judge made his ruling. 'There's no reason to take them off duty," Todd said. "Our administrative investigation did not reflect any difficulties with excessive force."

There is a possibility that a county grand jury will examine the case, but it remains doubtful that any indictments will be returned. As PLN reported in November and December, 1996, a local grand jury refused to indict another French Robertson guard, Neal Harms, for shooting unarmed prisoner Daniel Miguel Avellaneda between the eyes during an alleged "escape," even though numerous witness (all prisoners) reported that Avellaneda was standing still with his arms raised in surrender. That grand jury was comprised local citizens from Anson, TX whose populace is dwarfed by the nearby prison's population of 2,800. That grand jury declined to hear testimony from any of the prisoners who witnessed the Avellaneda shooting.

Todd said that no contraband was found in Crenshaw's cell and there is no indication why he would become belligerent with guards during a routine search. The standard prison spokesman prattle.

The official version usually remains unchallenged. In this case, however, two prisoners who witnessed the killing braved retaliation and independently sent written accounts to The Dallas Morning News. One witness remains at the French Robertson Unit and requested anonymity. The other, Kevin Mitchell, was transferred to a prison near Huntsville after Crenshaw's death.

Mitchell said Crenshaw started having problems with Helm last September. Mitchell said he was about ten feet away when Helm approached Gary Crenshaw. The two witnesses gave the following account: "Helm came over to him and said, 'What are you looking at?' and Gary said I'm just trying to see how y'all are trashing out the cell,''' said Mitchell.

Helm told Crenshaw to move away and he did so, but slowly. Helm pushed Crenshaw along , grabbed his neck, and Crenshaw pulled away. Helm told Crenshaw to 'get your [expletive) over there by the shower."

Crenshaw cursed at the guard and was ordered to face the wall and put his hands up. Crenshaw keep turning his head to see Helm. "Gary said, 'I'm going to look at you because you just got through trying to choke me,'" Mitchell said.

At this point, Mitchell and the other witness said, Helm turned and struck Crenshaw in the head. Helm and the other guard, Johnson, forced Crenshaw to the ground. Helm put a knee in Crenshaw's back while raising his shackled arms up high, arching Crenshaw's body. Meanwhile Johnson straddled Crenshaws' legs and delivered numerous kidney punches.

"He hollered out, and these were his last words: 'Y'all don't have to do me like this.' His eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and the blood came from his nose and mouth," Mitchell said.

Days after Crenshaw's death, the French Robertson Unit was locked down after a violent uprising. According to press accounts, a wild melee kicked off after about 30 prisoners overpowered guards in the same unit where Crenshaw was killed. The uprising was crushed by other guards who lobbed CS gas into the melee. Seven guards were treated at a local hospital for facial cuts and abrasions. There were no reports of injured prisoners.

Warden Drewry told reporters that the prisoners may have simply been looking for a reason to be rowdy. He later added, however, that guards reported hearing prisoners "bragging" that the uprising was in retaliation for Crenshaw's death.

According to TDCJ statistics, Crenshaw is the first French Robertson prisoner to die in 1997. Nine prisoners died there in 1996: Avellaneda, who was shot between the eyes; three recorded as suicides; and five by "natural causes" [however, Drewry told reporters that Crenshaw's death "would really appear to be natural causes brought on by a traumatic incident"]. In 1995 three French Robertson prisoners died from "natural causes" and two others were ruled suicides.

On April 17, the Abilene Reporter-News announced that Drewry received a promotion to a TDCJ administrative post, a new statewide position as "security auditor." Drewry described his new job to reporters. "It's just a sharing of information kind of deal," Drewry said. "If something needs correcting, I'll make sure it is."

Dallas Morning News, Palestine Herald-Press, Abilene Reporter-News

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