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Sunday, April 2, 2023

Jail Captain Convicted of Negligent Homicide in Hanging Death of Inmate

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A jail supervisor who walked away from an inmate after he had hanged himself was convicted of criminally negligent homicide on Tuesday, capping a trial that pointed to the brutal conditions inside New York City’s jails and the persistence of inmate suicides.

The jury, which deliberated for six hours in Manhattan Criminal Court, rejected Capt. Rebecca Hillman’s defense that no one warned her that the inmate who died, Ryan Wilson, 29, was serious about killing himself when he tied a sheet around his neck on Nov. 22, 2020, and suspended himself from a light fixture at the now-closed Manhattan Detention Complex.

The jury spent hours watching video footage that showed Captain Hillman looking inside Mr. Wilson’s cell, before she walked away and left him alone for 15 minutes.

Captain Hillman testified during the trial that she believed Mr. Wilson was pretending to be dead. When she saw him in his cell that afternoon, he appeared to be breathing and “his feet were flat on the floor,” she testified.

“This experience has been heartache,” Captain Hillman told the jury, adding that she would do things differently today.

“I would never, ever let this inmate stay in his cell, hanging,” she told the jury. “Ever.”

The jury acquitted her of a second count, writing a false report. The maximum sentence for criminally negligent homicide is four years.

During cross-examination, prosecutors poked at inconsistencies in her testimony and questioned her claims that she had not been properly trained on suicide prevention, showing her thick handbooks on the topic that officers are given during trainings.

Correction Department rules and regulations require that an officer immediately cut down and help an inmate who has attempted suicide. But Captain Hillman’s lawyer, Todd Spodek, argued that the violent and unpredictable job of guarding inmates often conflicts with training rules.

Mr. Spodek painted the jail system as a dysfunctional place with poorly trained officers who, soured by low morale and deteriorating conditions, have been leaving the job in droves in recent years. Prosecutors said that Captain Hillman contributed to that dysfunction by not obeying rules meant to protect inmates.

The accusations against her underscored pervasive problems in the city’s jail system, including efforts by some guards to cover up misconduct and sick time abuses that increased during the pandemic. Mr. Wilson’s death also illustrated shortcomings in the mental health system for people behind bars. Rates of self-harm rose in the city’s jails as fear of Covid-19 and the slow pace of the courts contributed to anxiety, incarcerated people and their lawyers have said.

Prosecutors said Captain Hillman had a duty to care for the inmates and that she failed when she dismissed Mr. Wilson’s hanging as fake and then prevented a correction officer from using his department-issued knife to cut him down.

Inmate suicides remain a harrowing and persistent problem in the city’s jail system.

In 2022, two years after Mr. Wilson’s death, 19 inmates died in the city’s jails. Seven of them were believed to be suicides.

At the time of his death, Mr. Wilson had been at the Manhattan Detention Complex for less than a month, where he had been detained after he was charged with robbery.

His sister, Elayna Manson, 37, said he had hoped to find work after he had been released from prison in June of that year after serving seven years for an attempted robbery conviction.

“‘Sis I’m trying. I want you to be proud of me, I’ve been going to church,’” she recalled he told her. “But they let him out in the height of Covid and he couldn’t find work and so he got into something he shouldn’t have.”

He was kept alone in a cell after an argument with another inmate and officers were planning to move him for his safety, according to testimony at trial.

He demanded to see Captain Hillman, who was the supervisor on duty in his housing unit that day. As a correction officer spoke to him from outside of his cell, Mr. Wilson fashioned a noose out of a bedsheet and attached it to a light fixture. He told the officer, Oscar Rojo, that he would hang himself if he was not allowed out of his cell, according to testimony at trial.

Prosecutors said that after Mr. Wilson was pronounced dead, Captain Hillman lied in a department report about the incident to hide her failure to help him.

During her testimony, Captain Hillman said that she did not initially act with urgency because no one seemed alarmed, including Officer Rojo.

She testified that when she went up to the cell, she found two inmates outside, lounging casually against a metal railing. They were “laughing and giggling” as Officer Rojo peered inside the jail cell, according to her testimony and video footage.

“I really thought that this guy was making a joke and these inmates were laughing at him,” Captain Hillman said.

Officer Rojo did not seem worried, she said.

“I would expect him to alarm me,” Captain Hillman said, and if something were truly wrong to say: “‘Cap, we have a real situation.”

She said she lectured him about letting inmates sit on the railing and the two of them walked away from the cell where Mr. Wilson remained inside, alone and dying.

During her time on the stand, Captain Hillman, who is on modified duty at the department, referred to Mr. Wilson as “the inmate” or “the individual” during her testimony. It was painful to listen to her, Ms. Manson said.

“I just wish Captain Hillman was sorrowful for what happened,” she said. “She did not take accountability. She didn’t show any remorse on the stand. I just wish she would apologize.”

Captain Hillman described herself as a single mother who took the job as a correction officer in 2013 to support herself and her son, now 15.

She was promoted to captain in 2017, but went on medical leave around October 2019, after a childhood friend was fatally shot by her husband. Mr. Spodek had called the woman Captain Hillman’s sister during his opening statement to the jury, but in her testimony Captain Hillman clarified that the woman was like a sister. She wept as she described how her friend’s death had so traumatized her that medical officials at the Department of Correction deemed her unfit to return to work.

Prosecutors used that part of her testimony to portray her as a duplicitous employee who took advantage of the department’s generous sick leave policy.

Captain Hillman was on paid leave for about nine months. For several months after that, she was placed on doctor-monitored duty, which meant she worked away from inmates.

In November 2020 she was transferred to the Manhattan Detention Complex.

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