Family of man who died after alleged assault by jail guards says justice is delayed
Elizabeth McNair (left) and Joyce Clark are Darrell Smith’s sisters. Smith’s family have filed at federal civil rights lawsuit alleging he was attacked by corrections officers while in prison in New Jersey. April 8.2023
More than three and a half years after an inmate at a New Jersey prison died following what family members have described as a vicious assault by corrections officers, the state Attorney General’s Office says it has yet to complete its investigation of the episode and present the case to a grand jury.
The family of the man who died, Darrell Smith, accuses authorities of covering up the attack and fears the guards will escape any accountability. For the authorities, it is an “out of sight, out of mind type of thing,” said Elizabeth McNair, Smith’s sister.
“I just feel like they’re dragging their feet, that they’re hiding stuff, they’re trying to cover up stuff,” McNair said.
Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Matt Platkin, said in an email that investigations of this nature take time because witness schedules, autopsy results, and other factors can cause delays. One of Platkin’s predecessors decided not to present cases involving fatal police encounters during virtual grand jury proceedings, and grand juries did not sit in person for 18 months during the pandemic, creating a backlog, she noted.
“When the investigation is complete, the findings will be presented to a grand jury to decide whether criminal charges will be filed. Fatal police encounters are often complicated cases and take considerable time to investigate and prepare for grand jury presentation,” Lauchaire said.
Even considering court delays aggravated by pandemic-era rules, the nearly four-year investigation into Smith’s death is protracted. Cases that have occurred since Smith died have already been presented to grand juries.
So much time has elapsed since the incident that at least one of the guards accused of participating in the assault has since died.
The Rev. Karen Hernandez-Granzen, a pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, called what happened to Smith “inhumane.”
“People should care because every man, woman, and child is created in the image of God,” she said.
Smith was an inmate at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center in Avenal, a facility that incarcerates individuals convicted of sex offenses after they complete their sentence.
On August 23, 2019, approximately a dozen guards participated in an attack on the 50-year-old Smith, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by his family.
The complaint says the confrontation began when two corrections officers taunted Smith with homophobic slurs and curse words. One of the guards entered Smith’s cell and retrieved some items, and when Smith protested, a guard took off his utility belt, ran after Smith, and began beating him, the lawsuit says. Other guards were called, and when they arrived, according to the lawsuit, they joined in the assault, kicking, punching, slamming, and stomping Smith until he was unresponsive and catatonic.
“Mr. Smith was tortured, beaten, kicked, punched, stomped, placed in an illegal chokehold, slammed to the ground, and had his head slammed into a glass door,” according to the lawsuit.
After the beating, guards — in what the family calls a “macabre turn” — moved Smith into solitary confinement and worked with the medical staff to withhold medical attention from him for four days, the lawsuit says.
Six days after the alleged attack, Smith was transported to JFK University Medical Center in Edison, but by the time he arrived at the hospital, he was brain dead, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint was filed in early 2021 but is delayed pending the criminal case’s presentation to a grand jury and has not even reached the discovery phase.
After the 2019 incident, the Department of Corrections told reporters it had reassigned the accused guards to other posts at the facility.
“The New Jersey Department of Corrections does not comment on investigations. NJDOC maintains a zero-tolerance policy regarding the mistreatment or exploitation of incarcerated people. All allegations of abuse, neglect, or violations of an incarcerated person’s rights are investigated,” said a corrections spokesperson.
William Sullivan, president of New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local #105, the union representing most corrections officers, said the Avenal facility is not known to be a particularly challenging prison for guards.
“The inmates there are a little less violent towards officers,” he said. “It’s not like in some of these other facilities.”
The family vs. prison staff
McNair said that she became suspicious of prison officials when she arrived at the Edison hospital after the alleged attack.
Prison officials were unfriendly and discouraged her from seeing her brother, she said. She said she was told he had suddenly suffered a stroke, but the family said he was healthy before the incident.
He was placed on life support, and the family decided to remove his ventilator. However, representatives from the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center instructed the doctors to keep him alive, she told the New Jersey Monitor.
It became “us, the family, against the staff from the prison,” McNair said. “If he doesn’t have quality of life, why keep going and prolonging his situation?”
The autopsy from the state medical examiner lists Smith’s manner of death as “undetermined.” It says “he was involved in an altercation with officers,” but that video recordings of the incident lack audio and were unhelpful in helping determine the cause of death.
The report states Smith had a documented history of hypertension and high cholesterol but that without understanding the nature of the altercation, “trauma cannot be excluded or included” as instrumental in the manner of death, alone or alongside natural causes.
When McNair tried to obtain Smith’s possessions and information about his death, authorities told her she couldn’t because it was under investigation, she said.
“I’m very patient, and so I know that things like this [are] not going to be resolved overnight,” she said.
Smith’s fellow inmates began inundating her phone with messages telling her they had witnessed his assault. They offered her specific, detailed information about what happened, and their accounts were consistent with each other, she said.
Some inmates told the New Jersey Monitor they wrote letters to the state attorney general describing what they saw and were interviewed soon after. Other inmates said they were not interviewed until several months ago, and some who claim to be eyewitnesses said they have not been interviewed at all.
Juan Zalazar is incarcerated at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center, and he claims he witnessed the entire event. He told the New Jersey Monitor that authorities interviewed him several months ago “for about five minutes.”
“They really didn’t what to know what was going on. They really weren’t interested,” Zalazar said.
The Attorney General’s Office has come under fire for its delayed and secretive investigations into incidents where police kill New Jersey residents. NJ Advance Media found that prosecutors opened at least 75 investigations into police shootings since 2019, and only 46 have been completed, with 29 still outstanding. In the finished probes, the process normally took nearly two years.
“We are in the grand jury every week,” Platkin told the outlet.
Jason Williams, a criminologist at Montclair State University, characterized the attorney general’s investigation in this case as “more of a stalling tactic.” The secrecy in prisons makes determining what happened doubly difficult, so state officials “are hoping that this somehow goes away,” he said.
“Correctional officers and just staff writ large are not really going to tell on themselves. You have this sort of blue wall of silence thing in the prison as well,” he said.
McNair remembers her brother as a devoted uncle and reliable brother who looked forward to eventually being released from prison and resuming normal life in his community.
“He really was very thoughtful. He loved his family,” she said.
McNair has no faith that either the Attorney General’s Office or the Department of Corrections will conduct a thorough, independent investigation into her brother’s death, let alone hold anyone accountable for it. From the outset, she said, the authorities have failed her.
The Attorney General’s Office didn’t even issue a press release announcing they were investigating Smith’s death, as they normally do for investigations involving a person who is alleged to have died at the hands of law enforcement.
“That’s who they are,” she said. “I do try and give people the benefit of the doubt most times. They people. But they real insensitive. And I really have no trust in them. Not at this point.”
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