NEW YORK -- A New York City jail guard has been convicted of a civil rights charge after a jury concluded he ignored the pleas of a dying Rikers Island inmate who had swallowed a toxic soap ball.
Terrence Pendergrass shook his head repeatedly as the verdict was announced Wednesday in Manhattan federal court.
Pendergrass was charged in the death of 25-year-old Jason Echevarria, who had bipolar disorder and was being held on a burglary charge, CBS New York reported.
On Aug. 18, 2012, Echevarria, who was in a mental health unit, swallowed a powerful disinfectant commonly referred to as a "soap ball" which he was given by a new correction officer after a sewage backup in his cell, officials said.
The man was left unattended for hours and was discovered dead the next day. An autopsy revealed he "died as a result of injuries caused by the ingestion of a caustic substance, consistent with the ingestion of a soap ball."
According to CBS New York, the jury heard testimony of other corrections officers who said they had alerted the captain to the inmate's suffering, but that he refused to call for medical help and stopped them from picking up the phone themselves.
The most damning was the testimony of one officer who was fired for his own misconduct in the case. He told the jury Pendergrass had told him, "Don't bother me unless someone is dead."
The 50-year-old guard faces up to 10 years in prison at his April 17 sentencing.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said the conviction and "systemic, institution-wide reforms" his office is pursuing should prevent similar deaths in the future.
"Jason Echevarria should not have died," Bharara said in March, when Pendergrass was charged. "As alleged, Terrence Pendergrass abused his power as a Rikers Island captain in charge of a vulnerable population of inmates with mental health issues by denying Echevarria access to medical care, despite his obvious and urgent medical need for it. The Constitution protects the civil rights of everyone, including prison inmates at Rikers. The kind of conduct alleged today cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system."
Earlier this month, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to spend $130 million over four years to overhaul how the city deals with mentally ill and drug-addicted suspects, diverting many to treatment instead of Rikers.
The proposals are based on the recommendations of a task force de Blasio appointed following a scathing Department of Justice review about violence at the jail's juvenile facilities and a series of reports by The Associated Press about the deaths of at least three inmates who suffered from serious mental illness.