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Deaths of Three North Carolina Prisoners Raise Suspicions

by Matt Clarke and David M. Reutter

The deaths of two prisoners at the Maury Correctional Institution (MCI), a 1,000-bed close-security prison for men located in Greene County, North Carolina, have raised suspicions due to questionable circumstances surrounding those incidents. The eventual death of another prisoner who suffered injuries at the Alexander Correctional Institution remains unexplained.

In May 2009, Johnny Lee Lewis, a 55-year-old state prisoner with a history of mental illness, was found dead in his MCI cell with a plastic bag over his head that was cinched around his neck with a belt. Before Greene County Sheriff’s Department investigators arrived, MCI guards cleaned up the cell and removed the plastic bag and belt.

“That was a mistake,” said North Carolina Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree. “The employee who packed up the cell had just arrived at work, did not know the circumstances of the inmate’s death and packed up his belongings as if it were a death by natural causes.”

MCI later refused to allow the medical examiner access to the plastic bag and belt. Nevertheless, an autopsy released in February 2010 listed the cause of death as suicide, opining that Lewis had put the plastic bag over his head and strapped it in place around his neck using the belt. He had been serving a life sentence.

On September 6, 2010, Charles E. Branch, 40, another state prisoner at MCI, was discovered unresponsive in his cell. He was taken to a hospital in Greenville where he was pronounced dead.

Acree called the circumstances of Branch’s death “suspicious,” and said an autopsy would be performed. He noted the suspicion was that another prisoner was involved in the death. “We have no reason to believe any staff was involved,” Acree stated.

Branch was serving a habitual felon sentence of more than eight years for driving while intoxicated; he had been incarcerated for only 6 months. An autopsy released in March 2011 determined that he was beaten and strangled. Security video footage showed multiple prisoners had entered Branch’s cell shortly before his body was discovered, and prisoner Sean “Dice” Outlaw was charged with murder in connection with Branch’s death.

In another fatal incident, a North Carolina state prisoner who was found in his segregation cell at the Alexander Correctional Institution with a fractured skull in August 2008 recently died. The cause of his injuries remains undetermined.

Timothy E. Helms, 49, died in the early morning hours of September 5, 2010 at the Kindred Hospital, a long-term acute care facility. He had been housed at the hospital because his injuries rendered him bedridden.

With an IQ of only 79, Helms took special education classes until he dropped out of high school at age 16. He had been diagnosed with multiple psychiatric disorders and was frequently admitted to state mental institutions.

A 1994 drunk driving collision that resulted in three deaths led to Helms being convicted on three counts of second-degree murder; he received a life sentence on each count.
Helms did not adjust well to prison. Over a 14-year period he received 125 rule infractions, ranging from threatening staff to hoarding postage stamps.

During that time he served 1,459 days in segregation. Despite prison policy prohibiting prisoners from being held in isolation for more than 60 days, Helms served 571 consecutive days in isolation with only a few hours out of his cell to shower or use a recreation cage. While in segregation, Helms repeatedly cut himself with a razor and would bang his head against the wall and smear himself with feces.

He used two batteries and a small piece of metal to set his bedding on fire on August 3, 2008. A security video showed guards dragging Helms out of the smoke-filled cell into a shower. He was later carried to at least two other cells out of the view of security cameras.

Guards took him to a local medical center the next day. A doctor noted that Helms had bruises and welts on his body “consistent with multiple blows from a Billy club.” X-rays revealed hemorrhaging inside his brain, a broken nose and a fractured skull. The severe injuries left Helms bedridden, unable to walk, barely able to speak and unable to do simple tasks such as feeding himself. [See: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.38].

An investigation did not determine how Helms received his injuries, but North Carolina Department of Correction Secretary Alvin W. Keller, Jr. said he believed Helms fell and hit his head. Prison officials have vigorously denied that Helms was assaulted by guards or that the guards carried batons, yet the video appeared to show that the guards who moved Helms on the night he was injured had black batons hanging from their belts.

Prior to his injuries, Helms had told a prison psychologist that guards were abusing him. Following the August 3, 2008 incident he informed his doctors and news reporters that he was beaten by guards with Billy clubs. His family was not advised of the situation until reporters contacted them six months after the incident that led to Helms being hospitalized. A prison official falsely told the family there had been “no problems and no use of force.”

Helms’ September 2010 death came as a surprise. “We’re shocked,” said his attorney, Lynne Holtkamp, who had visited him within the past month. “There was no indication he was ill beyond his normal condition or that death was imminent.” Holtkamp had been pursuing a claim against the state on behalf of Helms, alleging gross negligence. It is unknown whether that claim will proceed following his death.

Keller claimed a review by the State Bureau of Investigation into Helms’ injuries found no evidence of wrongdoing, but refused to release the investigatory report. Helms was the only person charged with a crime in connection with the August 3, 2008 incident, for setting his cell on fire, but those charges were later dropped.

Sources: Associated Press,,

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