A Manhattan federal judge on Wednesday sentenced Brian Coll, a former Rikers Island jail guard from Smithtown, to 30 years in prison for repeatedly headkicking a restrained inmate with hard-toed boots in a “particularly vicious and callous” assault that triggered a brain bleed and death.
Coll, 48, was also convicted last year of trying to cover up the details of the 2012 altercation that killed Ronald Spear, 52, a diabetic inmate with heart and renal disorders, following an altercation that broke out when the prisoner pressed to see a doctor in the Rikers infirmary.
“Mr. Coll kicked a man to death,” said U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, coolly dismissing a plea for leniency from Coll. “He did it while a sick inmate whose care had been entrusted to him was lying on the ground restrained. He did it despite the cries of his fellow correction officers.”
The judge also described the case as an unusually egregious example of prisoner abuse that has come to light at New York City’s jail on Rikers followed by an extended cover-up, and said a tough sentence was “paramount” to deter it.
“There is a culture of violence and poor treatment of inmates at Rikers Island,” she said. “Many correction officers and all law enforcement officers enjoy immunity when they act as a reasonable officer should. But no reasonable officer should have been inflamed as Mr. Coll says he was.”
Spear, 52, was awaiting trial on a burglary charge at the time. Some government witnesses testified that he tried to push and kick his way past Coll before the altercation. After he was subdued, Preska said, Coll kicked him four times and taunted him.
“This is what you get for [expletive] with me,” Coll said, according to trial testimony recounted twice by the judge. “ . . . Remember I did this.”
Coll’s lawyer described the beating as an aberration brought on by mental “deficits” that affect his client’s functioning, citing his otherwise clean record over 12 years at Rikers, and Coll told the judge he suffered nightmares because of his remorse at what he did.
“I am truly sorry Mr. Spear died because I lost control of myself,” said Coll, a short, stocky man who was joined in court by his mother. “ . . . I’m not a cold and callous person. I have yelled at inmates, but always tried to be professional.”
But the climb was too steep for Preska. One witness, she recalled, said Coll had teed off on Spear’s head like a field-goal kicker. Prosecutors said that afterward, Coll discussed getting a “teardrop” tattoo to memorialize the killing and framed an article about it on his wall.
Preska also said that, although Coll had no Rikers disciplinary record, there were other indications he was a risk to the public — including protective orders obtained by family members before his arrest and their refusal to co-sign bail papers, as well as evidence from prosecutors that he was viewed as a “bully.”
Convicted of civil rights violations and obstruction of justice, Coll could have faced up to life. The defense wanted 4 to 6 years, prosecutors asked for close to 30.
The city settled a civil suit with Spear’s family for $2.75 million. His father and stepmother attended and two relatives — niece Tiara Kelly and cousin Donna Spear — urged a tough sentence, describing Spear as a linchpin of their clan who was a “second father” to children in his extended family.
“We are extremely satisfied,” Kelly said afterward. “We’re just glad it’s over.”