Rikers guard arrested in death of inmate in hot cell

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NEW YORK (AP) — A New York City jail guard was arrested and charged Monday in connection with the death of a mentally ill inmate who roasted to death in his stifling jail 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 inmates every half hour Feb. 14 even though video didn’t show her doing so, according to prosecutors.

The Associated Press first reported the shocking death of the 56-year-old Murdough in the overheated cell, after a city official, speaking on 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 horrifying death of another mentally ill inmate in a similar mental 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.

On Monday, jury selection began for another Rikers guard. Terrence Pendergrass is accused of ignoring the pleas of a dying inmate in 2012 after he swallowed a toxic soap ball. He is charged with one count of depriving the rights of 25-year-old Jason Echevarria.

Lackner pleaded not guilty Monday and was released. She faces up to four years if convicted on all counts. Her next court date is Feb. 17.

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 in court to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and resign, but she rejected it.

Lackner, 34, was suspended for 30 days and then placed on modified duty after an investigation found she left her post 20 minutes before Murdough was discovered unresponsive in a pool of his own blood and vomit in the hot cell. She’s the only Department of Correction official so far to be criminally charged in the case. Lackner surrendered to the Department of Investigation on Monday.

Documents obtained by the AP showed she was disciplined by jail officials four years earlier for abandoning her post, leaving Rikers entirely without permission while working in the women’s facility of the massive jail complex near LaGuardia International Airport. The AP also reported then that Lackner, an eight-year corrections veteran, couldn’t be seen making the required tours on surveillance footage despite the logbook entries.

Her attorney, Damond Carter, told the AP in May that Lackner denied accusations that 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 Lackner’s 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.

Murdough had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell in a Harlem public housing building and sent to Rikers after being unable to make $2,500 bail. His family didn’t learn about his death until they were contacted nearly a month later by the AP.

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