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Involuntary manslaughter for deputies who beat inmate to death

by Jordan Green

When two detention officers dragged Carlos Claros-Castro’s lifeless body down the metal staircase from Cell 33 at Davidson County Jail on the night of Jan. 7, there were more than 30 distinct injuries on his body, including a broken nose, busted lips, a laceration next to his left eye, a gouged ear and an indention on the top of his skull. Lt. Ronald Parker, on trial for second-degree murder more than eight months later, would testify that the latter wound was consistent with the victim being struck by the beaded end of a retractable baton.

In final arguments on Aug. 11, the last day of Parker’s criminal trial, Assistant District Attorney Gregory Brown showed jurors first a photograph taken of the defendant less than an hour after the killing, a look of horror inscribed across his face. Then he showed a picture of the 28-year-old Claros-Castro in life, beaming in the kitchen at Elizabeth’s Pizza in Thomasville, where he earned money to send back to his wife in Honduras.

Aside from that visual detail, the prosecution conveyed little impression of who Claros-Castro was, saying nothing about his journey across the border two and a half years ago, nothing about his mother, sister, wife and two sons in Honduras, nothing about his aspirations to buy his mother a house. Instead they focused relentlessly on the forensic evidence: the victim’s many injuries, the distribution and pattern of blood around the cell and on the clothing of two detention officers, and the sequence of movement shown by a surveillance video whose frame ended just before the cell where the two officers struggled with the inmate until he expired.

“There are some witnesses who told you some of the truth,” Brown said, addressing the jury. “There are some witnesses who told you not much true at all. The state is suggesting to you that there was one person who was in the cell that night who told you all the truth. Mr. Castro spoke the truth to you. It’s in the photos.”

The trial of Ronald Parker over five days last week played out like a test of whether the life of a Honduran immigrant who spoke little or no English and exhibited erratic behavior within the confines of his cell could be counted as worthwhile, and whether a white detention officer employed with the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office could be held accountable for the death of such a person. On the last day of the trial, at the very moment Brown was cross-examining Parker about the extent of his training in dealing with Spanish-speaking inmates (a one-week course for detention officers that mainly dealt with booking inmates), Spanish-speaking laborers were applying paint to the roof of the sheriff’s office next door.

It was left for an-all white jury to decide over more than four hours of deliberation, in the midst of which the sound of heated argument seeped from the jury room to the courtroom, and in which one juror wept when the final verdict was read aloud.

They decided Parker was guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the same as his codefendant Sgt. Brandon Huie, who earlier accepted a plea deal from the District Attorney. Huie is currently serving a 20-month sentence at Piedmont Correctional Institution in Salisbury. Superior Court Judge Ed Wilson sentenced Parker to 13 to 16 months in prison.

Although hardly amicable partners, Parker and Huie qualified as the highest ranking officers on duty the night Claros-Castro died. The 44-year-old Parker, a 10-year veteran at the jail, was the shift supervisor. The 25-year-old Huie had recently been transferred to the jail from street duty for disciplinary problems, Parker suggested in his testimony. Extremely short staffed, Parker and his staff of four had responsibility for handling upwards of 270 inmates that night. It had been worse the night before, with a total of only four officers on staff, including Parker.

Parker testified that the norm at Davidson County Jail was for eight officers to be assigned a given shift. And yet the state standard called for one officer for every 10 inmates he said. By that formula, 27 officers should have been on duty at Davidson County Jail on Jan. 7.

The lieutenant testified that he has family in Davidson County, and he had lived there since 1991. That was the year he relocated from Norfolk, Va., where he had worked as a construction laborer. Two years earlier he had been honorably discharged from the Navy, serving from 1980 to 1989. Once hired at the sheriff’s office, Parker worked as a telecommunicator for four years, then took an assignment as a data entry clerk at the jail for about six months before becoming a detention officer.

“When you go back there you’re not going to be short-staffed,” said Walt Jones, the defendant’s lawyer. “You’re going to have eleven other jurors. Ron Parker did not have those opportunities. The bad things that happened are not Ron Parker’s fault. When you go back and make that decision, you are not going to have blood flying around and somebody getting choked. You are not going to have inmates yelling. Had he been given the twenty-seven deputies that the state standard called for this might not have happened.

“It’s hard to come up with a better plan in the short amount of time Ron Parker had,” Jones later added. “And even if you disagree, that does not mean that he’s guilty. Mr. Parker’s job is to supervise every drug trafficker, murderer, child molester and bank robber who comes through this county;’ we didn’t ask, but probably not for a lot of money. All he asks is for the same thing the drug trafficker, murderer and child molester gets. And that is the presumption of innocence.”

In finding Parker guilty of involuntary manslaughter, the jurors indicated that they concluded that some of the injuries that led to the death of Claros-Castro were inflicted by Parker, though they stopped short of finding that they were done so intentionally in the heat of passion or with malice, which would have respectively led to the more serious verdicts of voluntary manslaughter or second-degree murder. Two medical examiners testified that Claros-Castro died as a result of blunt force trauma combined with asphyxia, although neither were able to isolate the specific cause.

Parker’s fate hinged on legal arguments about the proximate cause of Claros-Castro’s death. Since both Parker and Huie had been locked in a struggle with the inmate, the lawyers for the prosecution and defense haggled with each other over which of the detention officers was likely most at fault. Quizzing a succession of expert witnesses, they suggested a variety of theories in efforts to match the most severe of the victim’s wounds with particular weapons utilized by either of the defendants.

Jones argued that Parker was left to play the hand dealt to him because Huie made a foolish decision without his input to go into the cell alone with Claros-Castro to retrieve a broken mop handle. Huie had deployed his Taser in two 10-second cycles, and released the contents of his pepper spray can at Claros-Castro, all to no apparent effect, it is widely agreed. Then he had another officer, Michael Shell, open the cell door from the control tower, and he extended his baton and struck the victim three times in the thigh. Some time later the two locked arms in a wrestling match that landed them both on the bottom of a set of bunk beds.

Brown suggested that the most severe blows were dealt after Parker came to Huie’s aid. He pointed out that Huie and Claros-Castro were in the cell alone for approximately two minutes and 38 seconds, and the time during which Parker was also present totaled six minutes and 19 seconds. According to Parker’s testimony, the shift supervisor used his baton to strike the inmate in the thighs three or four times, following protocol. Then as he tried to restrain Claros-Castro’s legs the inmate kicked him in the groin. He went down on his knees in pain and then used a technique called “speed-cuffing” to clasp Claros-Castro’s wrist. Parker also testified that some time later he held a blanket to Claros-Castro’s mouth to prevent him from spitting blood.

Several assertions in Parker’s testimony left troubling discrepancies. He said he believed Claros-Castro was choking Huie when he arrived on the scene. He said he never saw Huie use his baton after he entered the cell. And yet Parker suggested that he did not punch, hit, suffocate or otherwise inflict any serious harm on the victim.

The closest Parker came to admitting culpability for the serious injuries inflicted upon Claros-Castro was during cross examination when the defendant responded, “Possibly,” to the question of whether he caused the injury to the victim’s nose.

“Did you accidentally cause any of these other injuries on Mr. Castro’s head?” Brown asked.

“I don’t know, sir,” Parker replied. “I don’t believe I did.”

Brown pointed out several areas where Parker’s testimony contradicted the story he gave to law enforcement agents, and the defendant often lowered his voice during cross examination and generally avoided facing the jury. There were also disturbing facts that could not be explained by any of the witnesses.

There were the matters of a pool of blood on the floor near the head of the bunk bed where the victim lay, a mop head with a thick swatch of blood, a spray of blood on Parker’s shirt, and the wounds on the backs of Claros-Castro’s hands and on his elbow -‘ indicative of someone trying to shield himself from a volley of blows. Brown tried in vain to get the defendant to explain these matters.

During cross examination Parker also admitted that he instructed Officer Shell to collect the broken pieces of Huie’s Taser at a time when Claros-Castro’s breathing was shallow. Shell testified that he later went back to the control tower to retrieve an ambulatory bag with a respirator. Parker testified that he did not administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or attempt to clear the victim’s passageway while Shell was gone. Rather, the surveillance video shows Parker walking out of the cell. Still later, when Shell returned with the ambulatory bag, Parker instructed Shell and Huie to drag Claros-Castro’s body down the steps. The video shows them doing so while both of the victim’s hands are cuffed.

“The defendant, Ronald Eugene Parker, stole the life of Mr. Castro,” Brown concluded, “and by his own admission stole his hope of anyone else saving his life.”

Much of the trial and preceding investigation seemed designed to salvage the credibility of the justice system in Davidson County. Judge Wilson was brought in to preside over the case from Rockingham County. The State Bureau of Investigation and the FBI have aggressively pursued the case. Frank Brown, special agent in charge of the SBI’s Northern Piedmont office, showed up at Davidson County Jail on the night of the killing to interview the suspects. Later SBI Special Agent Danny Mayes and FBI Special Agent Thomas Brereton interviewed Parker at the FBI office in Greensboro, and Huie at his lawyers’ office in Winston-Salem.

Brereton sat with Mayes behind the prosecution table observing much of the trial, although he did not testify.

Huie was called to the witness stand by the defense, but declined to testify, citing his right to avoid self-incrimination. Brown, the assistant district attorney, took advantage of the former detention officer’s move to make a rhetorical flourish.

“Mr. Huie, are you concerned about any further federal charges?” he asked. “Is that why you’re invoking your Fifth Amendment rights?”

Judge Wilson, an outside jurist in a court secured by bailiffs who were former coworkers of the defendant – many of whom sat in the gallery to observe the proceedings – took special care to ensure the integrity of the trial. Often gracious and complimentary to the jurors and the counsel for both defense and prosecution, he displayed a rare but effective flash of anger when he learned that one of the jurors had spoken to a member of the audience.

A young man told the court that juror Danny Brewer had spoken to one of the audience members in the hall outside the courtroom, and that the two had exchanged greetings, and “chuckled.”

“We talked about my Naval experience,” Brewer explained to the judge. “He said, ‘I understand you were in the Navy as a storekeeper. I was in the Navy as a storekeeper.'”

Brewer said that was the first time he had ever seen the man, who acknowledged to the court that he was the defendant’s uncle. Wilson excused Brewer from the jury and sternly warned the remaining jurors and audience members against speaking to each other again.

When the jury finally returned the verdict on the evening of Aug. 11, the victim’s brother, Jose Claros-Castro, sat stoically in the front row behind the prosecution’s table. A short order cook like his younger brother, Claros-Castro lives in Rural Hall and works at Little Italy in King. He wore snakeskin cowboy boots and a blue checked shirt. Across the aisle, the parents of Ronald Parker began to weep.

Parker himself began to choke up as he stood to address Judge Wilson, a half dozen or so deputies standing against the wall in solemn silence.

“I’m sorry this had to happen,” Parker said. “I’m sorry for the loss of the Castro family. I know it’s a burden on them as it has been on my family. They’ve been on our prayers at our church. That’s all I’ve got to say, sir.”

Later, Jose Claros-Castro said through a translator that he felt at peace because he now knew for certain the identities of the two men who killed his brother, but it was difficult to accept Parker’s expression of contrition.

“I cannot tell you if he was concerned in his words,” he said, “but my mother has cried more than him.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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