Prisoner dies after altercation with guards

A 51-year-old Randallstown man jailed at Central Booking and Intake Center in Baltimore on charges of theft and failure to appear in court died yesterday after an altercation with guards that began after he refused to go to his cell, state prison officials said.

Relatives of prisoner Raymond Keith Smoot said he was "savagely beaten" by guards Saturday night. At a news conference they arranged at a niece's home, family members provided photos they took after Smoot's initial treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital; the photos show his face covered in bruises, his eyes blackened and blood-soaked gauze in his mouth.

"They cracked my uncle's skull," said the niece, Delvonna Smoot. "They crushed his face. This did not look like the Raymond Smoot we knew."

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he did not know the nature of Smoot's injuries or what caused them. Smoot's body was taken to the state medical examiner's office for an autopsy.

Vernarelli said his department and the Maryland State Police are "committed to getting to the bottom of this quickly and will do a very thorough investigation. If there is any wrongdoing that is uncovered, it will be dealt with swiftly and to the fullest extent of the law."

According to Vernarelli, a corrections officer called for assistance after Smoot refused to enter his cell about 6:20 p.m. Saturday and "an altercation ensued."

An official with the union that represents corrections officers at Central Booking said last night that 25 to 30 guards were involved in the altercation with Smoot.

"The details are very sketchy and there is, of course, a great deal of reluctance to say anything at this point," said Archer Blackwell, a senior staff representative with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

"He may have been acting out, which is not uncommon. And the officers, when summoned to a disturbance or an inmate who acts unruly, their job is to try to restrain them. It's unfortunate that they have to do that and then when something goes wrong, everyone points the finger at them," he said.

Blackwell added that the officers at Central Booking often lack specific training on how to deal with a disruptive inmate.

Smoot's family said he arrived at the hospital about 9 p.m., more than two hours after the incident. Hospital officials called the family about 10 p.m., relatives said. By the time the first relative arrived at 10:45 p.m., they said, he had been resuscitated twice.

Smoot's death is the latest in a series of troubles for Central Booking, Baltimore's state-run booking center, and the state prison system.

Last month, a Circuit Court judge ordered the crowded Central Booking facility to release inmates who do not receive a court hearing within 24 hours of their arrest, as required by law. People have been detained there for as long as four days without a hearing.

Last year, an inmate at Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland died after a violent encounter with prison staff. And in February, an inmate was strangled on a prison bus as it traveled from Hagerstown to Baltimore. Another inmate was charged, and prison officials fired three officers and disciplined two others.

At Delvonna Smoot's Southwest Baltimore home, where about 20 relatives had gathered, the hospital photos were laid out on a chair next to a photo showing Smoot sitting on a doorstep with his baby great-niece on his lap.

Relatives said Smoot was "no angel" but that he did not deserve the beating he received.

"He's a human being, and these people are supposed to be professionals," said another niece, Renee Taylor.

A preliminary review of court records indicates that Smoot had been scheduled for a hearing Sept. 14 in Baltimore District Court on a felony theft charge. When he failed to appear, a warrant was issued.

He was picked up May 4 on that warrant, scheduled to go to trial on June 2 and initially held on $5,000 bail. A judge reduced Smoot's bond to $1,500, which would have required a $150 cash bail for his release.

In the meantime, court records show, Smoot pleaded guilty Dec. 16 to another offense -- either trespassing or fourth-degree burglary -- and had not been sentenced. At the time of the plea, Smoot was on probation from a March 2003 conviction for misdemeanor theft, for which he received an 18-month suspended sentence and two years of probation.

Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said the warrant for Smoot's failure to appear in court in September might not have been entered into the computer system by the time he reported to court for his December hearing.

Last fall, the city's backlog of unserved arrest warrants had grown to 30,000, attracting the attention of the prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges and law enforcement officers who serve on Baltimore's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

After his arrest May 4, Smoot wrote a letter to his brother, James Smoot, saying he was locked up and needed money to get out, James Smoot said.

The brother said he received the letter last week and wrote back that he would come on Monday with the money. It was not the first time Raymond Smoot had turned to him for money to get out of jail, he said, and he wanted to teach his little brother a lesson by leaving him there for a few days.

A Baltimore native, Smoot was the youngest of five children, his family said. His nieces said he had worked a series of odd jobs but was most recently receiving disability payments and living with a sister in Randallstown.

Smoot had four children: two grown daughters, a 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter.

"He never hurt nobody. He never beat nobody," said sister Diana Smoot. "He went to jail, but it was on petty things."

Sun staff writer Melissa Harris and researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.