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Alabama Prison Guards Charged in Prisoner’s Murder
The first guard, Lt. Michael Anthony Smith, 37, was indicted on October 17, 2011 by a Barbour County grand jury; he was arrested and booked into the Lee County Jail with a $500,000 bond. Smith was charged with intentionally causing the death of VCF prisoner Rocrast Mack on August 4, 2010, “by beating him with his hands, fist, and/or baton.”
Mack was taken to two hospitals following the incident and died the next morning.
Six VCF guards were involved in the beating; all were either fired or resigned when threatened with termination during the ensuing investigation. Mack, 24, was serving a 20-year sentence for a minor drug offense at the time he was killed.
According to a lengthy Huffington Post article, “Civil rights advocates call Mack’s death an avoidable tragedy, the inevitable product of a profoundly dysfunctional state corrections system in Alabama that ranks among the very worst America has to offer.”
The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a Montgomery-based organization that represents indigent prisoners, called for state and federal investigations into Mack’s death. EJI conducted its own investigation and issued a report that found Mack “was confronted by a correctional officer who accused him of looking at her inappropriately.” She “initiated the assault by hitting Mr. Mack in the face.” Witnesses also told EJI that when the guard hit Mack a second time, he hit her back.
Several guards responded and “beat Mr. Mack until he was limp and lifeless,” the report stated. “Another correctional officer was threatened by guards when he tried to stop the beating. One officer announced during the beating that he intended to kill Mr. Mack.”
Lt. Smith reportedly told Melissa Brown, the female guard who initially hit Mack, to falsely claim that Mack had struck her first. This was duly reported by DOC public information manager Brian Corbett, who stated, soon after Mack’s death, “An inmate allegedly assaulted an officer and other officers had to intervene.”
The Associated Press obtained medical records that “showed Mack had multiple bruises to the head, torso, arms and legs, was missing at least one tooth, and his left eye was swollen shut. He suffered traumatic brain injury and never regained consciousness.” He also had fractures to his ribs, arms, legs and skull; an autopsy concluded that his death was a homicide caused by “unusually severe” blunt force trauma.
A report by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation released in January 2011 “reportedly found that officers engaged in ‘criminal conduct,’ ‘abused their authority,’ ‘used unauthorized physical force’ and provided ‘false information’ about the incident,” according to the Equal Justice Initiative.
Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) Commissioner Kim T. Thomas pushed for a state prosecution. “I am thankful and supportive of the attorney general’s willingness to see that justice is served and that those responsible for this tragic event are held accountable,” he said.
“A senior officer is accused of not only violating his oath of office, but of being so brutal in his actions that he took the life of an inmate under circumstances that make murder the appropriate charge,” stated Attorney General Luther Strange, when Lt. Smith was indicted. “Neither the DOC nor this office tolerates the use of excessive force in controlling inmates, and when officers cross the line, they will face the serious consequences of their acts.”
That was not the case, however, when the Attorney General previously defended Smith in three federal lawsuits filed by VCF prisoners who alleged brutality. In one of those cases, prisoner Michael Dobbins, who was confined to a wheelchair and partially paralyzed, said Smith had repeatedly punched him in the face, breaking his nose. Another suit claimed that an unresisting prisoner lying on the ground had been kicked, punched and beaten by a group of guards that included Smith. In an unusual turn, former VCF guard Paul T. Costello submitted a sworn statement in that lawsuit, acknowledging he had witnessed the assault involving Smith.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of complaints coming into our office concerning guard-on-inmate assaults,” said EJI executive director Bryan Stevenson. “Physical assaults of inmates by guards have become an accepted part of the culture in a lot of Alabama prisons.”
EJI and other prisoners’ rights advocates pushed for more indictments of guards involved in Mack’s death, and their efforts were rewarded when the U.S. Attorney’s Office stepped in. Guard Scottie T. Glenn, 28, was charged in federal court in November 2011 with one count of violating Mack’s civil rights and one count of conspiring with other guards to cover up the incident. Glenn pleaded guilty and admitted that he knew Mack would be beaten and that he and other officers had lied to investigators and in written reports. He has not yet been sentenced. See: United States v. Glenn, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:11-cr-00200-MHT-SRW.
Smith and two other VCF guards, Matthew Davidson, 43, and Joseph Sanders, 31, were charged in federal court on March 12, 2012. They are accused of civil rights violations for beating Mack, obstructing justice by attempting to cover up their actions, and making false statements to the FBI. Those cases remain pending. See: United States v. Smith, U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:12-cr-00048-MHT-TFM.
Other VCF guards involved in the incident that resulted in Mack’s death have not been charged, including Melissa Brown, who was subsequently fired for violating DOC rules.
State officials reportedly settled a civil suit filed by Mack’s family shortly after his death, agreeing to pay $900,000. Around half the money from the settlement was placed in a trust for Mack’s four-year-old son. See: Mack v. Alabama Department of Corrections, Montgomery County Circuit Court (AL), Case No. CV-11-900033.
Sources: The Birmingham News, Huffington Post, www.eji.org, U.S. Department of Justice press release, www2.eufaulatribune.com
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Related legal cases
United States v. Smith
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:12-cr-00048-MHT-TFM|
United States v. Glenn
|Cite||U.S.D.C. (M.D. Ala.), Case No. 2:11-cr-00200-MHT-SRW|
Mack v. Alabama Department of Corrections
|Cite||Montgomery County Circuit Court (AL), Case No. CV-11-900033|
|Level||State Trial Court|