Jury to determine Wake jailer's fate in manslaughter case

tmcdonald@newsobserver.comDecember 11, 2013 

— Detention officer Markeith Council was simply doing as he was trained when he tried to subdue inmate Shon Demetrius McClain last June and should not be punished for McClain’s death, his attorney told jurors on Wednesday.

Attorney Craig James’ argument capped a three-day trial in which jurors were repeatedly shown a surveillance video of Council, 27, hoisting McClain in the air and slamming him down on a concrete floor of the Wake County’s detention center in June.

McClain, 40, died 13 days after the altercation, which took place a week after he had been booked into the jail on misdemeanor charges. On Aug. 6, Council was charged with voluntary manslaughter. Jurors began deliberating the case late Wednesday but had not reached a verdict.

“Officer Council was there to do a job,” James told the jury. “He took the threats from Mr. McClain seriously. He took Mr. McClain seriously because his training and experience told him to take the threats seriously. Mr. McClain had every opportunity to see what he was up against. Was it a time for Officer Council to be passive? No. It’s the time to take control and bring order. That’s exactly what he intended to do.”

During his closing arguments, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby described Council as being unwilling to accept responsibility for what he did and as someone with anger problems who spoke derisively of the inmates he was charged with monitoring.

Willoughby said that even if the jury would allow that Council had the right to slam McClain to the floor once, the inmate’s immobile body did not warrant a second throw to the floor. Willoughby said the 290-pound detention officer could have put a knee in the back of the 119-pound inmate, handcuffed him and called for backup. By the time Council called for help from other detention officers, who arrived within seconds, McClain was unconscious, with a broken neck and two lacerations atop his head.

Officer ‘fearful’ or ‘aggressive’

Willoughby said Council called McClain out in the middle of the day room where he was one of more than 50 inmates, not to calm the inmate down but to make him an example to others and to show who was in charge.

“It’s a sad case because Shon McClain did not deserve to die,” Willoughby told the jury. “It’s even sadder because he did not need to die. It’s also sad because Markeith Council does not think he has done anything wrong. You listened to him on the witness stand. Not one time did we hear remorse or concern that he killed someone. Not one time did he say, ‘I’m sorry. Things got out of hand. I overreacted.’”

Council, if convicted of voluntary manslaughter, could spend the next 40 months in prison. Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner told jurors they could also find Council guilty of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter or find him not guilty.

James pointed out repeatedly that Council was doing his job as a law enforcement officer to “subdue” McClain, not fatally injure him. He also noted that the incident happened quickly and said that Council could not have known the extent of McClain’s injuries.

“He exercised the authority he has been given,” James said.

James opened his defense of Council on Wednesday by calling Council’s immediate supervisor, Wake County Detention Capt. Theodore Brown. Brown said Council was dedicated to his work and an all-around good man who simply did his job.

John Maxfield, a legal adviser with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office, said detention officers are trained in take-down and throws to subdue an inmate. He said the sheriff’s office policy manual has guidelines for instances when an inmate exhibits aggressive behavior toward other inmates and staff.

“If they are outside, then the first line of defense is pepper spray,” Maxfield said. “If it’s inside, then some degree of physical force” is permitted.

Maxfield, who noted that he had not been involved with the investigation, asked jurors to put themselves in Council’s shoes, consider the circumstances and then ask, “Was the officer fearful for his life?” Maxfield also said that the take-downs and throws taught to detention officers do not necessarily constitute deadly force, although an accidental death could occur.

During cross examination, Willoughby asked Maxfield if he there was anything to suggest Council did not already have control of the altercation when he picked up an immobile McClain and body slammed him a second time?

“He did not apply the handcuffs,” Maxfield said. “That meant he did not have the situation under control.”

Council takes stand

James’ final witness was his client, Council, who told the court that he has worked for the sheriff’s office for four years. Council grew up in Martin County and attended St. Augustine’s University on a football scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s of science degree in criminal justice and wants to one day become a prison warden with the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety.

“I am currently on track to take the sergeant’s test,” he said. “I’m right on track with where I am.”

On June 4, a Tuesday, Council enlisted the services of several inmates to drop off clean bed sheets and pick up dirty laundry. The inmates hand their dirty sheets through a trapdoor, Council said, and he follows behind and makes sure all the trapdoors are closed.

Council said he monitors the laundry exchanges closely because the inmates are “basically trying to get extra laundry.”

While closing the trap on McClain’s door, Council said the inmate yelled that he almost shut his fingers in the trap.

“I asked him, ‘What you say?’ What you say?’” Council said. “I told him if he didn’t want his fingers in the trap, you’ll pull them out.”

Council said McClain cursed him and said the jailers “had too much power.”

Council walked down a short flight of stairs from the command desk to the middle of the day room floor to hand out mail. Council was handing out mail when he spotted McClain in the rear of a group of inmates and called him over. Council said he warned McClain not to let other inmates who were egging him on get him into trouble.

“I told him this is not the place to be tough,” Council said.

The detention officer said he was using his finger and pointing it at McClain’s face because it was “a lecturing finger,” to try and calm him down. When McClain pointed his finger in the detention officer’s face, Council said, “that was a punch to me.”

Council responded by pushing McClain backwards several feet. McClain used a hand to break his fall. He quickly bounced up, moved toward Council and swung. Council said the punch landed on his jaw, requiring minor medical treatment at an urgent care clinic.

Later during cross examination, Council told Willoughby that he pushed McClain because he had “invaded my personal space” by pointing a finger in his face.

“You said you used a ‘lecturing finger’ to calm him down,” Willoughby replied. “When he did it, it was a threat to you.”

James, during his closing argument, said Council did not intend to seriously hurt McClain any more than two teens wrestling intend to harm each other.

“They’re wrestling. There’s horseplay, and someone strikes their head on a rock,” he said. “That’s not deadly force at all. It was no more than an accident.”

Willoughby chose to end his closing by reminding the jury that several inmates with prior criminal convictions testified on McClain’s behalf. But he pointed out that the jurors had a unique vantage to view the crime: the video.

“Think about the video in reverse,” he said. “Put a guard’s uniform on Shon McClain and prison stripes on Markeith Council. What standards would we use? Isn’t Shon McClain worthy of the same application of the law? Entitled to the same consideration of justice?”


McDonald: 919-829-4533

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