4 Missouri prison guards charged with murder, and a fifth with manslaughter, in death of Black man

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Four Missouri prison guards were charged Friday with murder, and a fifth with accessory to involuntary manslaughter, in the December death of a Black man who was pepper sprayed, had his face covered with a mask and was left in a position that caused him to suffocate while in custody at a correctional facility, according to a complaint filed Friday.

A group of guards making up the Department of Corrections Emergency Response Team was sweeping one of the housing units for contraband on Dec. 8, 2023, when Othel Moore Jr., 38, was pepper sprayed twice, then put in a spit hood, leg wrap and restraint chair, according to a news release from Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Locke Thompson.

Moore was then moved to a separate housing unit, where he was left in a locked cell in the hood, wrap and chair for 30 minutes, according to Thompson and probable cause statements. Thompson said multiple people heard him saying he couldn’t breathe.

Moore was eventually taken to a hospital wing and was pronounced dead. Thompson said the medical examiner ruled Moore’s cause of death was from positional asphyxiation, and his death was listed as a homicide. He confirmed the events were captured on the prison’s video surveillance system.

“After sitting down and reviewing all evidence, the dozens and dozens of interviews, all the reports, we determined that charges were appropriate,” Thompson told The Associated Press.

The complaint charges Justin Leggins, Jacob Case, Aaron Brown and Gregory Varner each with one count of second-degree murder and with one count of being an accessory to second-degree assault. A fifth guard, Bryanne Bradshaw, is charged with one count of accessory to involuntary manslaughter.

Those charged with felony murder could face between 10 and 30 years in prison, Thompson said.

Thompson said all five defendants are jailed. Multiple phone calls to numbers associated with the defendants and potential relatives were not answered Friday. Thompson said Case is the only one with a lawyer so far, but Thompson could not identify the attorney. A voice message requesting comment from the corrections officers union was not immediately returned Friday.

An attorney for Moore’s family, Andrew Stroth, has said Moore had blood coming out of his ears and nose.

“There’s a system, pattern and practice of racist and unconstitutional abuse in the Missouri Department of Corrections, and especially within the Jefferson City Correction Center,” Stroth said, adding: “It’s George Floyd 3.0 in a prison.”

After Moore was searched for contraband and stripped down to his boxers by other guards inside his cell, he was handcuffed behind his back and led outside, according to affidavits by Cole County Sheriff’s detectives.

Moore was ordered to be quiet, and when he questioned why, Leggins pepper-sprayed his face, according to affidavits.

“During a subsequent interview with Leggins, he stated that he deployed his pepper spray on the victim because he was not following directives to be quiet,” a detective wrote in an affidavit. “He then stated that he felt threatened because the victim turned towards him and ‘stepped’ or lurched at him.”

But detectives wrote in affidavits that video showed Moore was only turning his head to speak.

Another officer, Case, sprayed Moore a second time in the face for what he said was noncompliance, according to affidavits. Officers then restrained Moore’s legs with a restraint system known as a WRAP.

Officers said they then put a spit mask on him because he spit at them, according to detectives. But other staff said Moore was spitting pepper spray out of his mouth, according to affidavits.

Detectives said multiple officers heard Moore crying out for help after the mask was put on, and one heard Moore say he has asthma.

Moore then was taken to another cell and was not checked on for another 20 minutes, according to detectives. Department of Corrections staff did not evaluate or provide medical assistance to Moore until he became unresponsive, the deputies wrote.

Moore showed no aggression during the process and was complying with orders, affidavits said.

Lawyers for Moore’s mother and sister filed a wrongful death lawsuit Friday against the officers and the Department of Corrections.

The Moore family’s lawyers described the Corrections Emergency Response Team — who interacted with Moore — as “a group that uses coercive measures to brutalize, intimidate and threaten inmates” in a copy of the lawsuit provided to AP.

The lawsuit describes Moore’s death as part of “a systematic practice of fear-mongering, infliction of pain, and intimidation tactics.”

The Missouri Department of Corrections released a statement Friday saying Moore died in a restraint system designed to prevent injury to himself and others, and that the department has discontinued using that system.

The corrections department also said after the criminal investigation and its own internal review, 10 people involved in the incident “are no longer employed by the department or its contractors.”

The department said it “will not tolerate behaviors or conditions that endanger the wellbeing of Missourians working or living in our facilities. The department has begun implementing body-worn cameras in restrictive-housing units at maximum-security facilities, starting with Jefferson City Correctional Center, to bolster both security and accountability.”

Oriel Moore, Othel Moore’s sister, said her family never had a chance to see Othel Moore outside of prison after his childhood, adding to their heartbreak.

“He won’t get to live his life, he doesn’t even know what it is to be a grown man because he’s been in there since he was a kid,” Moore said. “He had plans. He wanted to be a productive member of society. He matters. His life matters.”

Moore, who grew up in St. Louis, was serving a 30-year sentence on a range of charges.

An AP investigation into lethal restraint used by law enforcement documented dozens of deaths between 2012 and 2021 in which officers had put someone in a spit mask or hood before they died. But those devices were rarely listed as a cause or contributing factor in the deaths.


Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley contributed to this report from Iowa City, Iowa and researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York.

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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