Health Care

No charges in case of paralyzed prisoner

A prosecutor says there is not enough evidence to file criminal charges in the case of an inmate who suffered devastating injuries while in solitary confinement last year at a state prison in Taylorsville.

The office of the head of the state Department of Correction, Alvin W. Keller Jr., also has denied a petition to release the inmate, Timothy E. Helms, because Helms is a quadriplegic. That decision overrides the prison system's top doctor, who approved an internal memo that Helms no longer poses any public threat and should be released to a hospice.

Sentenced to three life terms after a fatal drunken-driving accident in 1994, Helms suffered severe brain damage at Alexander Correctional Institution in August after setting a fire in his cell. Medical records indicated Helms suffered a beating that resulted in a fractured skull and extensive bleeding in his brain.

After DOC administrators could not determine how Helms was injured, the prison system asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the case in September. The agency didn't initiate that probe until March. The case was the subject of a front-page story in The News & Observer on April 5.

The following week, the SBI provided its report to Sarah M. Kirkman, the district attorney for Iredell and Alexander counties.

"After discussing the case with agents from the SBI and reviewing the report, which included witness statements, medical records and video footage, I have determined that there is insufficient evidence to prosecute any crime in the matter," Kirkman wrote in e-mail Wednesday.

Kirkman did not return phone messages Thursday seeking additional comment. A spokeswoman for the SBI said the agency's investigative reports are not public records and that a copy would not be released.

The SBI could not conclusively determine how Helms received his blunt-force injuries, according to a Department of Correction news release.

Helms arrived at Catawba Valley Medical Center in Hickory in the back of a squad car on Aug. 4, escorted by guards.

Dr. Jon A. Giometti wrote in Helms' emergency room intake report that, "The story I got is that sometime yesterday the patient lit a fire in his cell and officers went in to try to put the fire out. Patient resisted this and they had to subdue him using sticks, which included beating him on his body as well as in the face and head. ...

"The patient has [welt] markings consistent with [being] struck by a Billy club across his upper extremities. Across his trunk, he has contusions on the chest wall as also on the back consistent with multiple blows from a Billy club."

A written summary of Helms' CT scan showed hemorrhaging in his brain stem. There also was bleeding in both temporal lobes, the part of the brain important to speech, vision and long-term memory. Helms also had a broken nose and skull fracture, according to medical records.

According to the Department of Correction statement released Thursday, the doctor told SBI agents that he wrote that Helms had been beaten with a club only because that is what the inmate told him.

According to the department, Giometti said he did not think Helms had been abused. If he had suspected abuse, Giometti said, he would have taken photos, measurements and made sketches of Helms' injuries.

Giometti also said Helms did not have broken ribs and clarified that his nose was broken before the Aug. 3 incident, according to the department statement.

Giometti could not be reached Thursday.

The department's statement said that officers assigned to Helms' cell block were not issued batons until a month after the incident. It did not indicate whether staff in other parts of the facility had batons.

Also, the DOC said Helms' claim of being struck by guards wielding batons is not supported by video of the incident. The department said the video, which has not been publicly released, shows an officer grabbing Helms, who was unresponsive on the floor of his smoke-filled cell, and pulling him to safety while other staff members moved in to extinguish the fire.

The prison system denied requests for its reports on the incident or for security camera footage. Requests to visit the inmate in the hospital ward at Central Prison in Raleigh, where he now is held, also were refused.

Helms is developmentally disabled and had a long history of mental illness before being sent to prison. He has an IQ of 79, according to DOC records.

Helms racked up 125 infractions in 14 years, ranging from threatening to harm staff and possessing a razor to using profanity and hoarding 84 postage stamps. DOC records show that he spent at least 1,459 days in solitary confinement -- isolation psychiatrists say can compound an inmate's mental illness.

At the time of the fire, Helms had been in isolation more than a year, though DOC policy says no inmate should be in isolation more than 60 consecutive days. In the months before the incident, Helms had cut himself and repeatedly told his prison psychologist that he was being abused by guards, records show.

Infirm inmate

Helms is now confined to a bed, unable to walk, feed himself or control his bowels.

In February, the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina asked the prison system to release Helms under a program for inmates whose medical infirmity ensures they are no longer threats.

According to an internal assessment, DOC medical director Dr. Paula Smith had already recommended Helms' release.

"His condition is so debilitating that he is highly unlikely to be considered a significant public safety risk," the report concluded, adding a recommendation that Helms be placed in an outside nursing home with hospice assistance.

Keller's office denied that request Monday, according to DOC documents.

Helms has been eligible for parole since 2004. His next parole hearing is scheduled for June 1.

Lynne M. Holtkamp, a Chapel Hill lawyer now representing him, said it may take a lawsuit to find out what happened inside Alexander Correctional the evening Helms was injured.

"The beating of a person is unlawful, regardless of where it occurs and who it is and who is doing it. Those who are responsible can and should be held accountable," Holtkamp said.

Since February, Helms' older brother, Mike, has asked without success for permission to visit him in the prison hospital.

Mike Helms said Thursday that the only mail he has gotten from DOC in the past month was a large box containing molded cookies, candy and chips.

Helms said the spoiled food appeared to be the remains of a care package the family sent Tim Helms for Christmas 2007. Apparently, he never received it.

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