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Corcoran Guards Mute in Probe of Inmate Death

March 05, 2004|Mark Arax | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — An investigation into the Feb. 2 bleeding death of an inmate at Corcoran State Prison has been hindered by correctional officers who have refused to give details about the incident, authorities said.

Guards who initially seemed willing to cooperate in the probe have decided to keep quiet after meeting with union representatives and union attorneys, authorities said. Nearly every officer working in the section where inmate Ronald Herrera bled to death in his cell last month has refused to talk to the Kings County district attorney's office.

Herrera, a 58-year-old dialysis patient, died from an opening in his medical shunt after he screamed and kicked for hours in his cell without any intervention from the staff, according to corrections officials. Many of the 40 or so guards keeping silent are not suspects but witnesses, said the chief prosecutor leading the probe.

He said the silence had effectively blocked the monthlong investigation into possible criminal neglect.

"We need to interview a lot of people and, so far, we've had an awful lot of people refuse to talk to us," said Patrick Hart, the chief deputy district attorney. "They've all retained union attorneys who've advised them not to talk."

Union leaders did not respond to four requests for interviews over a weeklong period.

Hart said only a dozen officers out of the potential pool of 40 to 50 had made statements to county investigators. But because these officers are all peripheral witnesses at best, he said, their statements have little evidentiary value. Hart said he was miffed by the union.

"Someone from the union in Sacramento was supposed to call me and discuss the cooperation of witnesses," Hart said. "But I haven't heard from them yet. I'm assuming from all the refusals to talk that no one is going to be coming forward with voluntary statements."

In the face of silence, he said, the district attorney's office may take the matter to a special grand jury. "We're going to put the timelines and records together and figure out where we're going next. I wouldn't rule anything out."

The investigation follows by weeks criticism in Sacramento that the union has fostered a "code of silence" as a way to protect rogue guards and cover up wrongdoing.

Last month, Mike Jimenez, president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., dismissed the criticism. He told a state Senate hearing on prison reform that guards who keep silent in the face of misconduct are cowards. In a written statement, he said the organization called for "an end to the 'code of silence' or, as we prefer to call it, the 'code of cowardice.' "

The state senator who shared leadership at the hearing said union leaders had pretended to play along with talk of reform but pursued an entirely different tactic when the code of silence was practiced in the field.

When told of investigators' problems at Corcoran, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said, "I cannot reconcile Mr. Jimenez's rhetoric with his actions. On one hand, he calls the code of silence a 'code of cowardice.' And yet the union's message to its members, at least sub rosa, is 'don't talk, don't cooperate.' "

Guards suspected of wrongdoing are entitled to invoke their 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination, authorities said. But corrections officers who merely witness wrongdoing and keep quiet out of a sense of loyalty have a much higher legal burden in asserting such rights.

One Fresno attorney hired by the union to represent 12 officers disputed the district attorney's portrayal of the guards' conduct. He said his clients were willing to cooperate if certain ground rules could be established. If prosecutors decide to tape the statements, he said, his clients want to use their own recorders to tape the statements too.

"If they agree to this, then my clients will talk," said attorney Eric Fogderude, who said he believes the death was a suicide and that staff efforts to save Herrera had been "valiant."

But Hart called the dispute over tape recorders a red herring. "It's a lot more than that. And they know our concern. If we tape and they tape and then they tamper with their tape, you'll never figure out whose tape is accurate."

The Kings County coroner has not ruled the death a suicide. According to corrections officials, guards failed to respond to Herrera's repeated shouts as he bled to death in his cell over an eight-hour period that began Super Bowl Sunday and ended the next morning. Nearly all the blood had drained from his body through an opening in a shunt attached to his chest. What caused the shunt's cap to come off may never be known.

Top prison officials, responding to legislative concern over the code of silence, have in recent weeks underscored a guard's duty to report wrongdoing. In a memo last month to all correctional staff members, Roderick Q. Hickman, secretary of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, called for "zero tolerance regarding the code of silence."

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