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Former Florida Guard Gets Five Years for Fatal Assault on Mentally Ill Prisoner

A former Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) guard at Lake Correctional Institution (LCI) was sentenced on October 20, 2023, to five years in state prison for killing a mentally ill prisoner. That was after another prisoner reached a $125,000 settlement with DOC in January 2022 for an assault he suffered by guards at the lockup.

In the most recent case, State Circuit Judge James Baxley also ordered former guard Michael Riley, 30, to serve five years of probation at the completion of his prison term for the death of Christopher Howell, 51. Riley was convicted by a jury in June 2023 of manslaughter for rushing into Howell’s cell and using an “arm bar” to slam him into the wall, breaking his neck. Assistant State Attorney Nick Camuccio quoted a medical examiner who compared the force to that of a car wreck throwing a victim from the vehicle.

Two fellow guards originally backed up Riley’s story that they followed procedure in June 2020, when Howell, who was diagnosed with a personality disorder, refused to let them remove his handcuffs after an escort. The two, Jose Valentin and Kevin Gonzalez, said Howell was in a leather tether being pulled toward the cell bars to remove his cuffs when he yanked so hard that Riley fell. But when threatened with criminal charges, the two guards confessed that the tether wasn’t under control and Howell wasn’t pulling very hard. DOC then fired both.

Camuccio called Riley a “hot head” who made repeated threats toward Howell after the prisoner arrived in 2019 to serve a four-year term for armed robbery. Though he was on the job only 10 months before killing Howell, Riley logged 22 use-of-force incidents. His sentence was a fraction of what he faced for his original second-degree murder charge; that could have put him away for life, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Apr. 2021, p.35.]

$125,000 Settlement for Otis Miller in An Earlier Guard Beat-Down

A year before Howell’s killing, a viral cellphone video captured the 2019 beating of another LCI prisoner, Otis Miller, 44. After catching Miller with a pack of cigarettes, guard Ian Gretka chased him down and beat him, with the help of fellow guards Milton Gass, Hunter Lingo and Joshua Petersilge. The beating left the prisoner unable to stand on his own, so they threw him on a shower floor and ordered him to clean up.

DOC fired all four guards. Charges were also filed against three of them, though not Gretka; prosecutors said they could not clearly identify him from the video. Since he was the primary assailant, however, charges against the other three for abetting him were eventually dropped in November 2022.

Meanwhile Miller filed suit in July 2020 pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in federal court for the Middle District of Florida, seeking to hold DOC and its guards accountable for the beat-down. He lost a motion for summary judgment on October 18, 2021. But DOC had earlier lost a motion to dismiss his claims on March 3, 2021. The parties then proceeded to reach a settlement agreement in January 2022, paying Miller $125,000 inclusive of costs and fees for his attorneys, John M. Vernaglia of Shuffield, Lowman & Wilson, P.A. in Orlando, as well as Steven R. Andrews, David A. Weisz and Ryan J. Andrews of the Andrews Law Firm in Tallahassee, See: Miller v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr., USDC (M.D. Fla.), Case No. 5:20-cv-00323.

Miller remains in DOC custody, where he has been serving a 45-year sentence since 2001 for possessing cocaine too close to a school.  

Additional sources: Leesburg Daily Commercial, WFTV, WKMG

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Related legal case

Miller v. Fla. Dep’t of Corr.