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BOP Guard Found Guilty in Prisoner’s Death, Sentenced to Life

On July 30, 2009, a federal jury found a former prison guard at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) in Coleman, Florida guilty of civil rights violations in connection with a prisoner’s death. She later received a life sentence.

Richard Delano had been in and out of prison since his early twenties. At 39, he found himself in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), a “prison within a prison,” at FCC Coleman. He had been transferred to Coleman from FCC Beaumont and was being kept in the SHU for his own protection.

Delano had developed a reputation for snitching – he liked to tell on guards who broke the rules. Naturally, most prison employees disliked him. Coleman guard Erin Sharma was no exception.

Sharma and her husband, Rajesh Sharma, had worked for the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) since 2000, and transferred to FCC Coleman in 2001. Sharma was assigned to the SHU, which she didn’t mind. She did mind Delano, though.

In February 2005, Delano grabbed Sharma’s arm through a food port in his cell door, bruising her arm. She already didn’t like Delano because he was a snitch. The cell door incident just made things worse.

Rather than reporting what Delano had done, Sharma decided to take matters into her own hands. She was on good terms with John McCullah, another prisoner in the SHU. McCullah showed Sharma “respect,” so she would do favors for him from time to time, like passing notes between cells or giving him extra ketchup packets from the kitchen so he could make “hooch,” homemade alcohol.

McCullah wasn’t known as a nice guy. He had developed a reputation in prison, earning the nickname “Animal” for the violence he exacted on other prisoners. He had assaulted every one of his previous cellmates.

After Delano bruised Sharma’s arm, she showed McCullah the bruise and asked if he would break Delano’s leg. McCullah was happy to oblige; besides, he was a potential recruit for the Aryan Brotherhood and needed to show them what he could do. Sharma just had to get Delano into McCullah’s cell.

Because all cell moves had to be approved by Sharma’s supervisor, Lt. Jeffrey James, Sharma concocted a story and claimed Delano wanted to move in with McCullah. James, believing this to be true, approved the transfer.

On March 4, 2005, McCullah made good on his promise to Sharma; in fact, he gave her more than she asked for, beating Delano beyond recognition. Delano lapsed into a coma and died 13 days later from his extensive injuries.

It was Sharma’s “cruel acts,” federal prosecutor Douglas Kern told the jury in her subsequent criminal trial, that caused Delano’s brutal death – a “death he didn’t deserve.” The defense countered that jurors shouldn’t believe the SHU prisoners who had testified as witnesses, calling them the “worst of the worst” and saying they had plenty to gain by implicating Sharma. However, Kern noted that the prisoners had not been offered sentence reductions for their testimony, nor even a “Big Mac and Slurpee.”

“They put their safety and comfort on the line to testify in this case,” said Kern. “Justice. That’s all these inmates hope to gain.” This was somewhat ironic, because when government officials defend prison guards accused of abusing prisoners in civil cases, they frequently portray the prisoners as criminals and liars. But as one defense attorney has noted, the only time criminals can be trusted is when they testify for the government.

Sharma was emotionless when the jury returned a guilty verdict. She might have showed some emotion when she was sentenced, though. On October 26, 2009, Sharma received a life sentence followed by three years on supervised release, plus 75 hours of community service and a special assessment of $200. She did not make a statement at her sentencing hearing. See: United States v. Sharma, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 6:09-cr-00001-PCF-GRJ.

A second FCC Coleman guard, Michael Kennedy, was indicted on conspiracy charges in connection with Delano’s death on October 29, 2009. According to the federal indictment, Kennedy and Sharma had “discussed and agreed to retaliate” against Delano. Kennedy was released after posting $50,000 bond. See: United States v. Kennedy, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 6:09-cr-00217-ACC-DAB.

Sources: Orlando Sentinel,

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