From News and Observer
RALEIGH — December 10th, 2013 – Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby played and then re-played sections of a 13-second video in Superior Court that showed detention officer Markeith Council push, punch, elbow and twice slam an inmate head first on a concrete floor in a jail day room.
The 6-foot, nearly 300-pound jailer then handcuffed the limp, 5-foot 7-inch, 119-pound inmate and radioed for help.
The inmate, Shon Demetrius McClain, 40, died after the June 4 altercation, which took place a week after he had been booked into the Wake County jail on misdemeanor charges. On Aug. 6, Council was charged with voluntary manslaughter.
The playing of the video during the second day of Council’s trial was highly emotional for some members of McClain’s family. Several left the courtroom in tears while the video played.
“Just turn your head,” McClain’s aunt, Linda Judd, told family members after they learned that Willoughby would show the video several times Tuesday.
Council’s attorney, Craig James of Smithfield, did not dispute the video. But at day’s end, he asked Judge Paul Gessner to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charge because the statute indicates a person guilty of the crime must have committed the act with an intent to kill with malice.
“We have an inmate who may or may have not struck a law enforcement officer,” James said. “The state has not presented evidence showing that my client intended to kill him, but to subdue him.”
Willoughby disagreed, saying to prove voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors did not have to prove that Council intended to kill McClain, only that Council’s actions resulted in injuries that caused McClain’s death. The judge denied the request to dismiss the charge.
Key medical testimony
Two medical experts, Dr. Tim Garner, a Raleigh neurosurgeon who treated McClain for 13 days before he died, and Dr. Lauren Scott, a pathologist with the state medical examiner’s office who performed the autopsy, both said he died as a result of injuries he received from his altercation with Council.
Scott said McClain twice being slammed on his head split his scalp open and that the lacerations had to be closed with surgical staples. There was bleeding under the surface of McClain’s scalp, along with bruising, swelling and bleeding behind the membrane that covered his brain.
“Based on my observations and the video, the injuries were caused by the falling I observed in the video,” Scott said.
Garner said the cause of death appeared to be a lack of oxygen to McClain’s brain. In addition to brain injuries, McClain also suffered fractured vertebrae in his neck that “were just crushed.”
“Unfortunately, we see one or two every summer,” Garner said. “They are diving injuries we see when someone dives into water that’s not deep enough and they land on their head.”
The day’s hearing began with three inmates who saw the confrontation.
James Elvin Alston, who has a prior conviction for common law robbery, told the court that on the day of the incident he was helping three other inmates go from cell to cell handing out clean bed sheets and collecting dirty ones. Council was accompanying the inmates when they arrived at McClain’s cell on the second floor. It was apparently the officer’s job to close the trapdoor of the inmates’ cells after they received clean bed sheets.
“Really, Shon was mad about almost getting his finger caught in the trap door,” Alston said.
Alston said he could hear Council and McClain arguing “back and forth” while he was walking down the stairs back to the day room on the first floor.
“Officer Council said he hadn’t whupped anybody’s ass in a long time,” Alston said.
Another inmate, Aaron Mitchell, who has prior convictions for felony larceny and marijuana possession, said he heard Council tell McClain, “I’ll beat you to death, and I’ll take my time calling the nurse.”
The inmates who testified said between 30 and 40 minutes passed before McClain and Council confronted each other in the day room while Council was handing out mail.
The video Willoughby presented in the court Tuesday did not have audio, but the inmates who testified said Council saw McClain, who had a white towel draped around his neck, and told him to “come here.”
“Council told the other inmates to move back,” Alston said. “That’s why they are moving back.”
Alston said Council pushed McClain down, and the inmate “popped up” and tried to land a punch. The two struggled, and Council “threw him down.”
“Then he slammed him twice. After the first time, Shon didn’t say anything,” Alston said. “He couldn’t say anything because he was unconscious.”
The force of the second body slam prompted many of the inmates to move hurriedly in the direction of the altercation as if to stop it.
“One of the guys said, ‘That’s enough,’” said a third inmate, Bashiri Sandi, who has prior convictions for drug charges.
During cross examination, James reminded Alston that he testified that he was standing between the jailer and inmate. But in the video he was on the far left of the screen.
“I was close enough to hear and see everything that was going on,” Alston replied.
As McClain lay on the floor, Council handcuffed him and then radioed for backup.
A nurse who works at the detention center, Leandros Fine, was also summoned. In court Tuesday, Fine said when she arrived she saw McClain lying on the floor, unconscious.
“There was quite a bit of blood,” she said. “It seemed to be coming from his head.”
Fine said the blood source was from an injury to the top of McClain’s head. She said he was breathing at first, but stopped “shortly” afterward.
Fine, along with two other members of a detention medical team, moved McClain to a hallway where it was quiet. They administered CPR until paramedics arrived about 15 minutes later.
The prosecution rested Tuesday.
The defense will begin calling witnesses Wednesday morning. The case is expected to go to the jury by early afternoon.