A fellow correction officer cried on the witness stand Friday as he described how Brian Coll, a former Rikers Island guard from Long Island, savagely kicked restrained inmate Ronald Spear in the head during a fatal 2012 altercation and then taunted the prisoner.
Anthony Torres, an ex-guard testifying as a cooperating government witness on the first day of Coll’s civil rights trial in Manhattan federal court, had to grab a tissue as he told jurors how he tackled Spear and pinned his arms to end a fight, and Coll then “screamed” a curse at the inmate.
“He kicked him real hard in the side of the head,” said Torres in a halting voice. “Then he did it again. I stuck my arm out to try to stop it . . . . He picked him up by the front of the head. He said, ‘This is what you get for [expletive] with me. Remember I did this.’ ”
Coll, a burly 47-year-old from Smithtown who worked at Rikers for 10 years, faces up to life in prison if convicted of civil rights violations that resulted in death. He also is charged with lying about the incident and falsifying reports.
The case is one of several targeting brutality in state and local prisons that have been brought by the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara.
Spear, 52, was awaiting trial on burglary charges and was being held in an infirmary section of Rikers as a result of diabetes and kidney and heart problems at the time of the Dec. 19, 2012, incident. He suffered bleeding on the brain and died at the scene of cardiac arrest.
The incident began because Spear wanted to see a doctor, kicking and shoving Coll when he wouldn’t allow it, and the guard punched back. Actions by Coll and Torres to restrain Spear were legal, a prosecutor said in opening arguments, but the head kicks were excessive and killed him.
“It’s about an officer who was put in a position of power over others and how he abused that power, how he abused that power to violate a man’s constitutional rights, how he abused that power to savagely kick a man to death,” prosecutor Jeannette Vargas told jurors.
The defense, however, contended that Spear triggered his own demise by starting a fight, argued testimony about the kicks would be “inconsistent,” and said the government couldn’t prove if the legal efforts to restrain Spear or the later alleged head-kicks precipitated his cardiac arrest.
“You will not hear any doctor say conclusively that is what occurred,” defense lawyer Josh Dratel said. “It is a theory . . . . They’re going to try to pull various rabbits out of hats.”
In testimony about the wrestling match with Spear that preceded the alleged head kicks, Torres may have given an assist to the defense’s cause-of-death argument, noting that Spear expressed distress just before he stopped resisting.
He “complained that he couldn’t breathe . . . . He was tired and he just gave out. So did I,” said Torres, 50, of New Rochelle, who pleaded guilty to cover-up charges and said he was testifying in the hope of earning a lenient sentence.
An earlier witness told jurors that the bad blood between Spear and Coll began before the incident that ended in Spear’s death.
Shawn Fraser, an inmate at Rikers with Spear, testified that earlier in December the two of them were talking about their court cases, and Coll interjected to say that Spear wasn’t getting out anytime soon. Spear, he testified, responded by telling Coll to perform an obscene act.
Coll “was furious,” Fraser testified. “He said basically he should kick him to death.”
The trial is scheduled to resume on Monday.