A city Department of Correction Captain who prosecutors say failed to act to prevent the hanging death of an inmate at Manhattan Detention Complex in November was indicted for criminally negligent homicide.
Capt. Rebecca Hillman, who also faces a false-instrument charge for lying about the incident, was arrested April 26 after turning herself in to the Fifth Precinct, the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said.
According to the indictment, Ryan Wilson, who was being held on a parole violation following an arrest on robbery charges in October, had become agitated after Captain Hillman had ordered him moved following a confrontation with another inmate on the afternoon of Nov. 22.
While waiting to be moved, Mr. Wilson, 29, tied the sheet around his neck, stepped onto a stool, called over an officer and threatened to hang himself if he was not let out of the cell, prosecutors said. The officer tried to calm him down and called the Captain, saying she was needed immediately. She instead went to a control room, where she attended to paperwork.
Ten minutes later, Mr. Wilson, who had begun a countdown, jumped off a cell bed with the noose around his neck. The officer, who was speaking with him, called for the cell door to be opened but Captain Hillman ordered the door kept shut, saying that Mr. Wilson was “playing,” according to prosecutors.
When she finally did signal for the cell to be opened, she ordered the officer to not enter, saying that the detainee was acting out since he was still breathing. She then had the cell door shut and went on her usual rounds.
About 15 minutes after Mr. Wilson had jumped off the bed, the Captain had a medical team called. Officers then cut him down and, feeling a faint pulse, began chest compressions. He died before medics arrived, however.
Prosecutors allege that Captain Hillman then filed a report falsely claiming she had acted quicker than she actually did to extricate Mr. Wilson from his homemade noose.
'Doesn't Have to Obey'
Captain Hillman was released on her own recognizance. She has been suspended without pay pending resolution of the criminal case, according to a DOC spokesman, who added that the agency was conducting its own investigation. It will take appropriate disciplinary action depending on that investigation's outcome, he said.
The president of the Correction Captains’ Association, Patrick Ferraiuolo, said that while what happened that afternoon was “a tragedy,” Captain Hillman was being railroaded when responsibility belonged with the Correction Officer.
“Whatever the case may be, the officer doesn’t have a right to obey an order like that,” he said of the officer who heeded the Captain’s commands to not enter the Mr. Wilson's cell.
Mr. Ferraiuolo said a correction officer’s first duty is to abide by the sworn oath of “care, custody and control” of inmates and to abide by the law. “A correction officer can’t take an unlawful order,” he said.
He also said that prosecutors’ accounts of the incident were incomplete at best. “It’s disgusting what they’re making this out to be,” he said, and suggested that anti-law-enforcement sentiments played a part in the indictment.
“I know that the Captain didn’t wake up in the morning…did not go to work and say ‘I have bad intentions,’ ” the union leader said. “I don’t think it rises to the level that the charges reflect."
'Should Have Been Avoided'
The attorney representing Mr. Wilson’s family, though, placed the blame for his death squarely on the Captain. “As a result of Captain Hillman’s conduct, Ryan Wilson died while he was a prisoner,” Benjamin M. Pinczewski said by phone. "His death could have been avoided. His death should have been avoided.”
He said that video evidence, testimony from other inmates and from “brave correction officers” were instrumental for prosecutors.
“It was clear that absent her conduct, Ryan Wilson would still be alive today,” Mr. Pinczewski said. He noted that the Captain was still a DOC employee as of April 26. “She should be fired,” he said.
The president of the Black Lives Matter Greater New York City, Hawk Newsome, who called for prosecution of the Captain from the outset, welcomed the indictment. “What we’re seeking is accountability, we’re seeking justice,” he said.
He praised the officers who he said first brought the incident to the attention of police, who in turn informed advocate organizations, including his. “This should encourage other officers to step and do the right thing,” Mr. Newsome said.
Not Her First Failure
Captain Hillman, who was hired in 2013 and promoted in 2018, failed to intervene and prevent a use-of-force incident in August 2019, according to DOC personnel reports (The recently posted records cover only 2019 and last year through Aug. 21). Following a plea agreement, she was docked four vacation days.
Her next court date is scheduled for July 8. Both charges are classified as Class E felonies and carry maximum sentences of four years.
“As alleged in the indictment, the death of Ryan Wilson wasn’t just a tragedy—it was a crime,” DA Vance said in a statement, adding that the Captain’s failure to take action exhibited “callous disregard.”
The Department of Investigation’s Commissioner, Margaret Garnett, said the charges reveal “a stunning disregard for life,” and are the “more-egregious” given Captain Hillman’s supervisory rank.