The Editors' Blog

A jailer, an inmate and 80 seconds of video

I’ve watched the video that was taken last June by the camera trained on the jail day room maybe a dozen times. I’ve watched it at full speed. I watched it a frame at a time.

Each time, inmate Shon Demetrius McClain is on his way to becoming a dead man, and Wake County detention officer Markeith Council is on his way to becoming a felon, an inmate himself.

The video was apparently enough to convince a jury last week to convict Council of involuntary manslaughter. Council will spend three months behind bars in the same Wake County jail where he worked for four years.

There’s a randomness, an awful randomness about the events that led to McClain’s death. Police arrested him for drinking alcohol in the bus depot in Moore Square. They turned up a failure to appear charge. And so he was booked into the jail on May 28.

Sometime on June 4, he and Officer Council got into it over an opening in McClain’s cell door used to pass such things as laundry back and forth, and whether the officer’s actions when he closed the “trap door” narrowly missed smashing McClain’s fingers. There were evidently words back and forth. All this happened off-camera. This is what I saw on-camera:

When the video starts, the 27-year-old Council is walking into the day room to hand out letters to the inmates. He is a big man, 6 feet tall, 290 pounds, a former St. Augustine football player.

The day room on the video is a sight most of us have never seen. The inmates are wearing orange jump suits, with white stripes. Occasionally, we see an inmate on TV in jail garb making a first appearance in court. It is another thing to see a room full of dozens of men wearing orange and white jump suits, milling around in a day room, an assemblage of men whose families, teachers, and clergy have tried to keep on the straight and narrow but have failed. It is a very depressing sight.

Into view comes McClain, 40. He is a small man. We now know he was 5-foot, 7 inches tall, and weighed 119 pounds. On the video, he has a towel around his neck.

It becomes clear at this point that the back-and-forth between McClain and Council is not over.

McClain starts slowly walking towards Council. Council appears in the video to gesture to McClain to come closer. It is a subtle gesture. You have to replay the video several times to see it.

McClain walks up to Council and gets close to the officer. The inmates that had been gathered around McClain and Council back away, apparently sensing trouble. At a distance the inmates form an audience watching the two, only a few inches apart, gesturing at each other.

At this point, McClain makes a fateful decision. Looking up at Council, he starts wagging a finger at the officer. About four finger wags in, Council gives McClain a hard shove, a real hard shove. In his trial, Council will say that the wagging was like “a punch to me.”

The little man goes backwards in a hurry, almost falling down but not quite.

Regaining his balance, McClain then makes the second, fateful, and ultimately fatal, decision. He walks quickly back to Council and takes a poke at him.

Then things happen very fast. For a few seconds, Council basically wraps himself around the struggling McClain until he can get a good grip on the inmate’s backside, then lifts him off his feet, and throws him down on the day room floor. At the point, there is no fight in McClain. He may be unconscious.

But Council reaches down, gets another grip on the inmate, lifts him up like a bag of mulch, and throws him down again. At that point, McClain has severe head injuries and fractured vertebrae in his neck. Thirteen days later, he dies at WakeMed.

What was going on in that day room? The video shows a silent movie without context.

Council testified that he was trying to calm McClain down. McClain, he said, was getting egged on by other inmates to do something about the fingers-in-the-trap-door incident.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby saw it differently. In his closing argument, he said Council called McClain out in the day room to make an example of him, to assert his authority.

If so, that was a bad decision on Council’s part, because McClain wasn’t in a mood to be lectured.

As McClain started to give it back to Council, the guard was now in a difficult spot. He now had a guy half his size giving him the business. If, in the world of the Wake County jail, a wagging finger from an inmate was the equivalent of a punch, then Council had to act.

Hence, the shove that sent McClain flying. But, unfortunately for Council and very unfortunately for the inmate, that just made things worse.

Maybe McClain felt humiliated by being sent sprawling, and felt he was backed in a corner himself, needing to restore some of his dignity. And so he came back at Council. Maybe McClain thought that because Council was so much bigger and stronger, the guard would simply wrestle him to the floor, cuff him and the fight - if you can call such a mismatch a fight - would be over. McClain would be able to boast to the other inmates that he hadn’t backed down, and that would be that.

But if that was McClain’s plan, Council wasn’t going along. He didn’t simply wrestle this little guy to the ground. And he didn’t use his shoulder radio to call for assistance. Not until he had thrown McClain down on the floor a second time.

Frame by frame, I have watched the bad decisions and miscalculations of the two men on that day. First Council comes into view of the camera fixed on the day room, a college-educated detention officer with dreams of being a prison warden someday. A man with a pregnant wife and three children.

Sixteen seconds later, McClain comes down a set of stairs into the day room, a father of two teenagers with relatives who cared about him.

Less than a half minute later, McClain walks up to Council. A half minute after that, Council shoves McClain. And less than 10 seconds later, it’s over. Eighty seconds from start to finish, give or take.