NEW YORK (AP) — A jail guard accused of skipping her rounds and falsifying a logbook to cover it up was charged Monday in connection with the death of a mentally ill inmate in his stifling 101-degree cell.
Carol Lackner faces multiple counts of falsifying business records, filing a false instrument and official misconduct charges for falsely indicating she checked on homeless ex-Marine Jerome Murdough and other Rikers Island inmates every half-hour on Feb. 14 even though video didn’t show her doing so, prosecutors said.
Lackner, who would face up to four years in prison if convicted, pleaded not guilty and was released. She didn’t immediately respond to a voice mail message seeking comment.
Her lawyer, Damond Carter, said she performed visual tours, not walking tours, which he called an accepted departmental practice. He said her superiors also didn’t visit the unit where Murdough was housed.
A spokeswoman for the Bronx district attorney said Lackner was offered a deal to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and resign but rejected it.
The Associated Press first reported the death of the 56-year-old Murdough after a city official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Murdough “basically baked to death” when he was left unchecked for at least four hours overnight as malfunctioning equipment caused his cell to overheat.
Murdough’s Feb. 15 death, along with the death of another mentally ill inmate in a similar observation unit five months earlier, prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to convene a task force on how the mentally ill fare in jail. Last week, de Blasio announced that task force’s findings, saying he’ll spend $130 million over the next four years to improve how the mentally ill interact with the justice system before, during and after jail stints.
Lackner was suspended for 30 days after an investigation found she left her post 20 minutes before Murdough was discovered unresponsive in a pool of his own blood and vomit. She’s the only Department of Correction official to be criminally charged in the case. She’s due back in court Feb. 17.
Documents obtained by the AP showed she was disciplined by jail officials four years earlier for abandoning her post, leaving Rikers without permission while working in the women’s facility of the massive jail complex near LaGuardia Airport. The AP also reported then that Lackner, an eight-year correction veteran, couldn’t be seen making the required tours on surveillance footage despite the logbook entries.
Her attorney told the AP in May she denied accusations she left her post without permission. He said she had been brought in that night as a relief guard after effectively working three straight shifts and, while she felt the excessive heat, wasn’t informed of any complaints regarding it. He also said it was unfair to lay all the blame for Murdough’s death at her feet.
Murdough, who suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was on psychotropic drugs, which experts say can make a person more sensitive to heat. The medical examiner ruled his death an accident.
His mother, Alma Murdough, had intended to sue over his death, but city officials agreed to a $2.25 million settlement before her lawsuit was filed. She said she hoped Lackner would be convicted and sentenced to prison.
“She should never have had that job,” Alma Murdough said Monday.
Correction officials suspended Lackner upon her arrest. She had previously been placed on modified duty. She surrendered to the Department of Investigation on Monday.
DOI investigators, who referred the case to prosecutors, found that Lackner falsely verified she’d conducted the count of the inmates in Murdough’s unit and said she’d conducted five tours of the housing area between 11:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and 2:30 a.m. Feb. 15, according to an indictment.
Murdough was discovered unresponsive at about 2:50 a.m. by another jail guard.
Murdough had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell in a Harlem public housing building and was sent to Rikers after being unable to make $2,500 bail. His family didn’t learn about his death until it was contacted nearly a month later by the AP.
Also Monday, jury selection began for another Rikers guard, who’s accused of ignoring the pleas of a dying inmate who swallowed a toxic soap ball in 2012.