Guard Arrested in Death of NYC Inmate in Hot Cell

NEW YORK (AP) — A jail guard who investigators say failed to make her rounds and then falsified the logbook to cover it up was arrested and charged Monday in connection with the death of a mentally ill inmate in his stifling 101-degree Rikers Island 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.

Lackner pleaded not guilty Monday and was released; she didn’t immediately respond to a voice mail message seeking comment, and her lawyer didn’t return an email or phone call. She faces up to four years if convicted on all counts. Her next court date is Feb. 17.

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.

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.

Lackner, 34, 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 in the hot cell. She’s the only Department of Correction official so far to be criminally charged in the case.

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.

His mother, Alma Murdough, had intended to sue over her son’s death, but city officials agreed to a $2.25 million settlement before her lawsuit was filed.

“She should never have had that job,” Alma Murdough said Monday after being informed of the charges, adding she hoped Lackner was convicted and sentenced to prison.

Department of Correction officials suspended Lackner upon her arrest. She had previously been placed on modified duty.

Investigators from the Department of Investigation 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 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.

Also Monday, jury selection began for another Rikers Island jail 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.