NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The state medical examiner has classified as a homicide an inmate's death at the hands of guards at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.
The Tennessean reports the medical examiner's officer watched a video of prison guards trying to get Charles Jason Frank Toll out of his cell on Aug. 17.
An autopsy report by Dr. John Davis says Toll was handcuffed behind his back and put face down on the floor where guards held him down for 10 minutes with a riot shield.
Toll was unresponsive and had distressed breathing for about five minutes. When guards rolled him on his back, he didn't have a pulse.
Davis declared that Toll died from asphyxia with suffocation.
Toll had been serving a 30-year sentence on multiple charges including aggravated burglary, escape and theft.
The Tennessee Department of Correction found no policy violations in its internal review of the death, spokeswoman Dorinda Carter told the newspaper, and the guards were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The District Attorney General's Office said it is still reviewing the case.
Martin Horn, former head of New York City's and Pennsylvania's corrections departments and a lecturer at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that just because the death was ruled a homicide does not mean it is considered murder.
The ruling simply means that Toll's death was caused by another person.
“It would be ruled a homicide even if everything was done right,” he said. “It means it was not a suicide or natural causes.”
But Horn said he was alarmed to hear that Toll was held down for a full 10 minutes.
“The purpose of it is it to pin the guy and get him handcuffed,” Horn said. “But if he was already cuffed, that raises questions in my mind. And holding him with four guys, face-down, I would say, is out of the ordinary.”
No lawsuits have been filed in Toll's death, but two other Riverbend inmates have filed their suits recently based on claims of guard mistreatment.
Inmate Ryan Honeycutt claims that on May 31 guards came into his cell, shackled his arms and legs, and beat him because he was complaining that inmates were being denied showers.
Todd White claims that later that same day, after he complained about the guard's treatment of Honeycutt, guards shocked him with an electric riot shield and beat him.
Both inmates are representing themselves in court, and both cases are ongoing.
Correction spokeswoman Carter said the department is investigating the allegations by Honeycutt and White, but she declined to discuss details.
“We take all allegations of misconduct seriously, and we aggressively investigate them,” she said.
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