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Canadian teen's prison death ruled a homicide

Thursday - 12/19/2013, 4:39pm  ET

TORONTO (AP) -- An inquest jury determined Thursday that the case of a teenage girl who guards let choke to death in a Canadian prison six years ago was a homicide.

Ashely Smith, 19, choked herself to death with a piece of cloth in a prison cell in 2007. Prison guards, who had previously rushed to her aid during prior choking episodes, had been under orders from senior management not to enter her cell as long as the chronically self-harming teen was breathing. Instead, they watched and videotaped her actions from outside her cell.

Under the Canadian Coroner's Act, an inquest is mandatory when somebody dies in custody. Smith's family had urged the inquest jurors to reach a homicide verdict because of that order directing guards not to enter Smith's cell unless she was unconscious. They believed that directive significantly contributed to her death and are calling on authorities to criminally investigate those who issued that order.

"The real question has to be asked: How could such a flagrant abuse, such a flagrant disregard for human life go unaccounted for?" Julian Falconer, the family's lawyer, said.

"Those who made the order not to go into her cell -- the deputy warden, the warden, those above -- have yet to be truly investigated or yet to truly answer for their actions."

Four prison staffers were originally charged with criminal negligence causing Smith's death, but those charges were eventually dropped. Falconer said the family is not calling for their case to be reopened.

The inquest jury's ruling is nonbinding, meaning a law enforcement agency can choose whether to act on it. Calls to Correctional Service Canada seeking comment on the ruling were not immediately returned.

Canada's correctional investigator, Howard Sapers, had previously said in a report that Smith's death was preventable and called her treatment "oppressive and inhumane."

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper had weighed in, calling Corrections' handling of Smith unacceptable.

The young woman spent most of the last three years of her life in segregation, shunted from one institution to another in isolation.

In the last year of her life she was transferred between institutions 17 times.

Smith's sentence originally began with a few weeks for throwing crab apples at a postal worker but ballooned to a cumulative 2,239 days by the time she died on Oct. 19, 2007, mostly for acting out in prison.

Some of the inquest's witnesses said Smith spoke positively about her future and going home to her mom. Others said she had become inconsolably desolate at the prospects of never leaving prison.

The inquest heard that psychiatrists prescribed medication without seeing the teen and psychologists made attempts to offer some form of therapy -- through the food slot of her cell door. At one point Smith was diagnosed with severe borderline personality disorder.


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