Baltimore Sun

Prison staff cleared in death

An Allegany County grand jury decided yesterday that the prison staff was not criminally responsible for the homicide of a 51-year-old Nigerian inmate three months ago at Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland.

The Allegany County state's attorney, Michael O. Twigg, could not be reached for comment late yesterday.

Instead, the announcement came last night from Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He said that Mary Ann Saar, the secretary of the department, and Frank C. Sizer Jr., commissioner of the Division of Correction, were traveling out of state and unavailable for comment.

The grand jury began reviewing the April 30 death of Ifeanyi A. Iko on Wednesday, according to several sources close to the investigation.

"Secretary Mary Ann Saar has expressed her support for the staff at WCI, and has communicated her belief that there was no criminal intent in this instance," Vernarelli wrote in his e-mail last night. "The staff at WCI is still shaken by the death of Mr. Iko and our hearts go out to his family."

An attorney for Iko's family said yesterday that the lack of indictments against prison staff was "not unexpected," but he was surprised at how swiftly the grand jury completed its investigation.

"Just because a grand jury didn't hand down an indictment doesn't mean that everything that was done was not criminal or not right," Gary Adler said.

While the grand jury did not find criminal culpability, it was not known yesterday if prison staff would face administrative sanctions for any possible violations of correctional regulations in Iko's death. Vernarelli was unable to provide further information. It was not known how many prison staff members appeared before the grand jury, which operates in secret, or if inmate witnesses, paramedics or others provided testimony.

Iko, a Prince George's County resident, had been held in the segregation unit at the medium-security prison in Cresaptown. On the day he died, a prison psychologist wanted him moved to another housing unit for psychological observation, but Iko refused to cooperate, prison officials have said.

To subdue him, a lieutenant sprayed three cans of pepper spray in his cell. A team of riot-clad correctional officers then burst into his cell, restrained him, and transported him to another part of the prison. At some point, officers placed a mesh "spit mask" on Iko to prevent him from spitting or biting, according to inmate witnesses and other sources.

When an ambulance was summoned two hours later, there were indications that Iko may have already been dead.

Iko's family was suspicious of the death, partly because prison officials failed to notify them. Instead, his family learned of his death nearly two weeks later from a Sun reporter. In the past, they said, Iko had complained to them of abuse at the hands of correctional officers at WCI.

After the medical examiner ruled Iko's death a homicide by asphyxiation in late May, the investigation broadened to include the Maryland State Police and the Allegany County State's Attorney's Office.

Most of the investigative work - such as interviews of inmates and correctional officers - was conducted by the department's internal investigators, and not the state police. Some state legislators had expressed concerns that an outside law enforcement entity - and not the department's internal unit - should have conducted the investigation.

Adler, the attorney for Iko's family, said yesterday that he and family members never intended to rely on the results of the internal investigation and the grand jury. He indicated that a lawsuit against the state would likely be filed in the near future.

Several weeks ago, correctional officers told union officials for AFSCME Council 92 that they believed they followed proper correctional department procedures and did nothing wrong.

Yesterday, Joe Lawrence, an AFSCME spokesman, said: "Maryland correctional officers perform a very vital role in society, and they do so in very difficult circumstances. They conduct themselves professionally, and the decision by the grand jury would reflect that."

Sun staff writer Greg Garland contributed to this article.