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Sentencing adjourned for former Rikers captain facing 10 years in inmate's death

The eastern section of Rikers Island jail complex

The eastern section of Rikers Island jail complex in Queens on June 11, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

A former Rikers Island correction captain facing up to 10 years in prison for fatally neglecting an inmate in distress won a last-minute adjournment of his emotion-laden sentencing Thursday by claiming that his lawyer had done a poor job.

Terrence Pendergrass, reportedly the first Rikers officer convicted on civil rights charges in a decade, won the delay from U.S. District Judge Ronnie Abrams in Manhattan after she had heard emotional pleas from him and from the father of the prisoner who died.

"He wants leniency? Not in my book," said Ramon Echevarria, whose son Jason, 25, died in Rikers' mental health unit in 2012 after ingesting a toxic "soap ball" and his screams for medical help were allegedly refused by Pendergrass.

"I will never forgive Mr. Pendergrass," the father told Abrams. "He's not a human being. That was my son! That was a human being! I can't see someone dying on the floor and doing nothing to help him."

In a rambling speech before claiming his lawyer had messed up, Pendergrass, 51, of Howard Beach, Queens, blamed correction officials for giving toxic cleaning chemicals to inmates without warning guards they could kill, but also offered an apology of sorts.

"I'm one of the officers if you need help, you call me," said the barrel-chested veteran guard, turning to face Echeverria. "I would never do that to your son if I knew. . . . I want you to know, face to face, I don't do that to no one."

The court was filled with his family and union supporters on one side, and Echevarria's camp on the other. "My heart cries for this whole thing. I deeply apologize," he said.

The sentencing comes as the federal government is suing for reforms to reduce guard violence at Rikers. Although federal guidelines call for 21 to 27 months in prison for violating Echevarria's civil rights, prosecutors asked Abrams to impose a stiff sentence to deter "systemic indifference" at the jail.

But defense lawyer Sam Braverman, before Pendergrass turned on him, said dozens of guard-brutality cases are never prosecuted, and the federal government shouldn't scapegoat his client. "We don't hang one to deter others," he said.

The hearing ended when Pendergrass complained about Braverman's preparation. Abrams said she would give him a new lawyer to consult with on Friday, but had heard enough and would reschedule the sentencing soon.


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