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Lawyers spar in trial of ex-Rikers guard for fatal beating

A former Rikers Island correction officer was so proud that he had repeatedly kicked a prisoner in the head in 2012, killing him, that he kept a newspaper account of the alleged beating, a federal prosecutor said Wednesday in closing arguments at Brian Coll’s trial in Manhattan.

“Brian Coll framed an article about a man he killed,” prosecutor Brooke Cucinella said. “Let’s call it what it is – a trophy.”

The newspaper clipping of the alleged beating of Ronald Spear, 52, was kept inside a gold picture frame and hung in Coll’s bedroom, Cucinella told jurors before U.S. District Court Judge Loretta Preska.

Spear’s mother, who was in court Wednesday, declined to comment. The city paid $2.75 million to settle a lawsuit by Spear’s family.

Coll, 47, of Smithtown, is charged with violating Spear’s civil rights to be free from excessive force, a crime punishable up to life imprisonment. The other four counts against him are related to the alleged cover-up. Coll, who worked at Rikers Island for a decade before he left in 2014, is being held on a $500,000 bond.

At the time of the beating on Dec. 19, 2012, Spear had been on Rikers for about three months awaiting trial on burglary charges. Spear was ill with diabetes, heart disease and end-stage renal disease that required regular dialysis, according to prosecutors.

In his closing statement, Sam Schmidt, Coll’s attorney, attempted to cast doubt on the prosecution’s case, arguing that Spear’s health was so compromised that he could have died at any time during the struggle.

“His heart was really enlarged – double the size,” Schmidt said.

It’s also possible that Spear died after his head struck a wall during the struggle or hit the floor when he and another former guard, Anthony Torres, fell to the ground, Schmidt said. However, Cucinella said Torres testified that did not happen.

The struggle began because Spear wanted to see a unit doctor, who was busy, according to prosecutors. Spear didn’t want to wait, so he kicked Coll and shoved past him to get to the doctor’s office. Coll punched Spear. At that moment, Torres and another guard tackled Spear to the ground.

Action taken by Coll and the two guards to restrain Spear was legal, according to the prosecution. But after Spear was subdued, Coll repeatedly kicked him in the head, according to the prosecution, which constitutes excessive use of force.

The kicks, three or four to the side of Spear’s head, were so hard that Cucinella said they caused bleeding in Spear’s brain. He died of cardiac arrest brought on by blunt force trauma and physical exertion.

Two eyewitnesses, including Torres, testified that Spear grunted when he was kicked because he was in pain, Cucinella said.

“And, that does not happen if Mr. Spear was dead,” Cucinella said. Dead people, Cucinella said, don’t make noises when they are kicked.

Coll faces four additional charges for allegedly lying to superiors and investigators when he said Spear attacked him with a cane, and that he fought back in self-defense, according to prosecutors. Coll persuaded other correction officers to cover up the alleged beating by going along with the story he concocted, prosecutors said.

Coll’s fellow guard, Byron Taylor, 32, of Brentwood, previously pleaded guilty to being part of the cover-up and is scheduled to be sentenced this month. Torres, 50, of New Rochelle, also pleaded guilty, and testified against Coll at the trial.

The jurors, who began deliberating late Wednesday, are scheduled to resume their work Thursday.


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