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4 Missouri Prison Guards Charged With Murder in Death of a Black Prisoner


Four Missouri prison guards were charged with murder on Friday and a fifth with involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the death of a Black man who died last year after they pepper sprayed him, covered his face with a mask and left him in a restraint chair, the authorities said.

The man, Othel Moore Jr., 38, died of positional asphyxiation on Dec. 8 at the Jefferson City Correctional Center, according to court records, which list homicide as the cause of death.

The episode that led to Mr. Moore’s death occurred during a sweep by the Missouri Department of Corrections Emergency Response Team of one of the prison’s housing units that was being searched for contraband, according to court records.

Mr. Moore was searched and stripped down to his boxer shorts, and staff members used pepper spray on him multiple times and placed him in a restraint system with a spit mask, which is supposed to prevent spit from hitting others, and a padded helmet, records show. He was then taken to a different housing unit, where he was left in a cell with the spit mask, helmet and restraint system.

In a news release on Friday, the prosecuting attorney’s office said that Mr. Moore was left like this for about 30 minutes and that multiple witnesses said they had heard Mr. Moore “pleading with the corrections staff and telling them that he could not breathe.” According to court records, prison staff members did not check on Mr. Moore or provide medical assistance until he had “become unresponsive.” Mr. Moore, who was serving a 30-year sentence for convictions including robbery and domestic assault, was eventually taken to the prison’s hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Locke Thompson, the prosecuting attorney for Cole County, said that he could not comment on a pending case and added that there was surveillance video evidence that would not be publicly available until the case is closed.

One of the guards said that he had pepper-sprayed Mr. Moore because he had not complied with orders to be quiet and that he had felt threatened when Mr. Moore “lurched at him with his shoulders in a threatening manner,” according to court records. But surveillance video “shows this was not the case, and that the victim’s only movement was his head turning to direct his speech,” the records state.

Another guard said that he had pepper-sprayed Mr. Moore in the face while he was on the ground at the top of a staircase because he had not followed orders to stop resisting.

Four guards — Justin M. Leggins, 34; Jacob A. Case, 31; Aaron C. Brown, 24; and Gregory H. Varner, 34 — were all charged with second-degree felony murder and second-degree assault, according to court records. Another, Bryanne M. Bradshaw, 25, was charged with involuntary manslaughter.

All of the defendants, except for Mr. Case, were in custody as of Friday afternoon, Mr. Thompson said. Mr. Case had not yet been arrested, but he had “made arrangements to surrender himself to law enforcement,” Mr. Thompson said.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the defendants had obtained legal representation as of Friday evening.

Andrew M. Stroth, managing director of Action Injury Law Group, a national civil rights firm in Chicago, and a lawyer for the family of Mr. Moore, said that while devastated by the loss of their brother and son, the family was “grateful to the prosecutor for having the integrity and boldness to file actual criminal charges.”

The family has not yet seen the surveillance video, Mr. Stroth said, but is demanding its release.

Mr. Stroth, who called the case “George Floyd 3.0 in a prison,” said that on Friday afternoon he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of the family against the Missouri Department of Corrections, the Jefferson City Correctional Center and the five officers involved in Mr. Moore’s death because “they don’t want it to happen to anyone else, and they want to advance systemic change.”

“The Missouri Department of Corrections has a history, pattern and practice of abuse, particularly of Black inmates,” he said. “It’s a tragedy on multiple levels.”

The Missouri Department of Corrections said in a news release on Friday that it had discontinued the use of the restraint system that was used on Mr. Moore. The department said that it had been “designed to prevent injury to himself and others.”

The department also said that it had conducted its own investigation into Mr. Moore’s death and had cooperated with the criminal investigation.

“As a result of the two investigations, 10 people involved in the incident are no longer employed by the department or its contractors,” the department said.

Tim Cutt, the executive director of the Missouri Corrections Officers Association, the union for the guards, called the charges “an unfortunate turn of events.”

“We have thousands of corrections staff, and they do good work every single day,” he said. “This one incident kind of overshadows everything we’re doing.”

Stressing that the officers involved did not “seek out” to kill Mr. Moore and that “this is not something that happens on a daily basis,” Mr. Cutt said that there was no cause for alarm from the general public.

The union cannot provide the officers with legal representation, he said, but it can refer them to a lawyer if asked.

Mr. Cutt, who said that he had worked in corrections for 25 years, added that this is the first time he had heard of a situation like this.

“We’ve had corrections staff murder people outside,” he said, “but nothing of this magnitude inside the confines of the prison.”

Mr. Thompson, the prosecuting attorney, said he expected that the officers would be arraigned on Monday afternoon.


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