Ex-Rikers Corrections Officer Found Guilty Of Civil Rights Abuse

December 18, 2014 | Prachi Gupta

On Wednesday, a jury found former Rikers captain Terrence Pendergrass guilty of a civil rights violation in the death of an inmate two years ago. The New York Times reports that Pendergrass is the first officer to be tried for such a crime “in more than a decade.” He may serve up to 10 years in federal prison.

In 2012, 25-year-old inmate Jason Echevarria, “a pretrial detainee,” died after “swallowing a highly toxic packet of detergent that burned through his digestive tract.” He asked Pendergrass for help, saying he needed medical attention, but according to testimony from two other officers, Pendergrass denied the request. Echevarria was dead by the next morning. An autopsy showed that the chemicals had burned through parts of his digestive system.

More on the charges from the Times:

The charge against Mr. Pendergrass was deemed a civil rights violation because the due process clause of the 14th Amendment guarantees inmates the right to be free of deliberate indifference to medical needs.

In order to convict, the jury had to find that Mr. Pendergrass had deliberately and willfully acted or failed to act to deprive Mr. Echevarria of his constitutional rights.

“The jury unanimously found that Pendergrass violated Jason Echevarria’s constitutional rights by deliberately ignoring his pleas for help and depriving him of urgent medical care, leaving Echevarria to die alone in his cell,” the United States attorney in Manhattan, Preet Bharara, said in a statement. “Echevarria should not have died, and the convictions of individual wrongdoers at Rikers Island — as well as the systemic, institutionwide reforms we are pursuing — should help prevent tragedies like Echevarria’s death from occurring again.”

The decision arrived just months after the Times exposed a culture of violence at the jail and corruption among high-ranking officers. In response, Mayor de Blasio has called for major reforms of the prison.

Joshua D. Kelner, the lawyer representing the Echevarria family, said, “Mr. Pendergrass operated within a culture where someone with that attitude can be promoted to captain, and where everybody stood by and watched this man do nothing, and held his orders as a fiat.”

(Photo: Matt Green)