CUMBERLAND — CUMBERLAND - An Allegany County grand jury met yesterday to begin its investigation into whether prison staffers were criminally responsible for the death of an inmate at Western Correctional Institution in nearby Cresaptown.
Ifeanyi A. Iko, a Nigerian immigrant, died of asphyxiation shortly after a violent encounter with correctional officers April 30. The medical examiner's office ruled his death a homicide. The findings of an internal investigation were recently turned over to the Allegany County state's attorney office.
State's Attorney Michael O. Twigg could not be reached for comment. The grand jury, which operates in secret, originally was to meet at the medium-security prison to have access to inmate witnesses, according to several sources close to the investigation. For unknown reasons, that plan was changed and the proceedings took place at the Allegany County Courthouse annex building.
Jurors were seen entering the annex in the morning. Prison staff connected with the case reported to the courthouse at 1 p.m. to appear before the grand jury, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
Iko, 51, died shortly after a half-dozen riot-clad correctional officers forcibly moved him from his cell so he could be taken to a special observation unit in another section of the prison for psychological evaluation.
After refusing to cooperate with them, Iko was sprayed with three cans of pepper spray. The correctional officers then burst into his cell to restrain him, inmates and other sources said. An inmate witness reported hearing the sounds of a violent struggle and said Iko screamed, then fell silent.
When an ambulance was summoned two hours later, there were indications that he was already dead.
A paramedic reported signs of "rigidity" within minutes of leaving the prison and received permission to cease life-saving efforts, according to a 911 tape of emergency dispatches.
A Prince George's County resident, Iko had been in state prison since 1991, when he began serving a three-year sentence for a drug-distribution charge.
The next year, he received an additional 20-year sentence for stabbing and biting a correctional officer in an Eastern Shore prison.
That officer was later fired for his role in abusing another inmate in another incident, court records showed.
In a recent message to WCI staff, Mary Ann Saar, secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said she is confident the grand jury will not find "criminal intent" in Iko's death.
Union officials who represent correctional officers have said that those staff members involved with Iko the day he died believe they followed proper department procedures and did nothing wrong.
Mark Vernarelli, a department spokesman, said that although the department had turned over its findings to Twigg, the investigation was not closed.
"Something may come out in the grand jury that we'll need to investigate," he said.
In most Maryland jurisdictions, a grand jury is impaneled for three to six months.
It consists of 23 members who are chosen at random from motor vehicle and voter registration rolls, according to Matthew Campbell, a former deputy state's attorney for Howard County.
Grand juries can investigate "virtually any suspected criminal activity within their jurisdiction" and have the power to indict if they find probable cause that a crime has been committed, he said.
He said a citizen can refuse to testify by asserting his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"But even in those instances, you can compel their testimony - you just can't use it against the person who gives it," Campbell said.
"If people refuse to testify and are determined to have no Fifth Amendment grounds, they can be held in contempt and jailed," he said.
Traditionally, grand juries do not summon persons who are suspected of committing serious criminal offenses, Campbell said.
However, investigations into the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers fall into a different category, he said.
"In the two or three instances we had where officers used lethal force, the protocol we employed was to invite the officer to testify but not to compel the testimony," Campbell said. "In several instances, officers did come in and testify."