Justice not served by slight sentence for Wake guard

December 13, 2013 

The jail video shown during the trial of Wake County detention officer Markeith Council shows the guard twice slamming inmate Shon Demetrius McClain into a concrete floor, inflicting injuries that led to his death. The video offered clear and damning testimony that the guard intended to hurt the inmate, not merely subdue him.

The evidence was so graphic that McClain’s aunt, Linda Judge, told family members in court when the video was about to be shown, “Just turn your head.”

Now it seems the entire justice system has turned its head, unwilling to respond appropriately to a brutal assault within a public institution. The jury rejected District Attorney Colon Willoughby’s request for a conviction on a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Instead, the jury found Council guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Gessner further softened the punishment after noting Council’s good employment history and good standing in the community and that he is a father of three with a wife who is five months pregnant. The judge, who could have imposed a sentence of up to four years, sentenced Council to 12 to 24 months but then suspended the sentence and ordered Council to spend 90 days in the jail where he worked, followed by three years of probation.

The sentence makes a mockery of justice. In addition to the video evidence, inmates testified that Council had had a verbal altercation with McClain less than an hour before. There was evidence that the 27-year-old guard – who is 6 feet, 290 pounds – was looking to teach a lesson to the 40-year-old McClain, a much smaller man at 5-foot-7 and 119 pounds.

The natural response is to back guards who have physical confrontations with inmates. Guards do face hazards and provocations and deserve support. But the badge cannot become a license for abuse. When a guard kills an inmate with clear video evidence of the circumstances, the justice system should impose the same penalty it would for anyone who kills someone out of rage, particularly when the victim is much smaller and essentially defenseless.

Failing to impose the full weight of the law on jailers doesn’t support the justice system. It feeds cynicism about it and encourages more abuses. It’s notable that the Wake verdict came just three days after 18 current and former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies were indicted as part of an FBI investigation. Investigators said sheriff’s officials had created a culture in which deputies were permitted to beat and humiliate inmates and cover up misconduct.

Two pending civil lawsuits against Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison claim that guards attacked an inmate and that guards violate local and state policies without reprisal. Those cases will shine a needed light into the actions of Wake jailers. Meanwhile, Harrison should move strongly to review the conduct of guards and make it clear that their job is to supervise inmates, not punish them.

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