NYC jail captain goes on trial over inmate’s suicide
Capt. Rebecca Hillman has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide and offering a false instrument for lying on an incident report
By Molly Crane-Newman
New York Daily News
NEW YORK — A Manhattan jail captain went on trial Thursday charged with stopping a correction officer from preventing an inmate’s suicide because she thought the man was faking.
City Correction Captain Rebecca Hillman declined to let anyone intervene before Ryan Wilson tied a noose around his neck, and after he jumped off his bed and hung himself from a light fixture in his cell at the Manhattan Detention Complex on Nov. 22, 2020, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Sears said.
The Manhattan Supreme Court prosecutor said Correction Officer Oscar Rojo asked Hillman to open Wilson’s cell as he tried to talk the detainee out of killing himself, but the “heartless” jail captain wouldn’t let him. She then allegedly barred Rojo from cutting the ligature from around the dying man’s neck because she thought he was “playing.”
“Firmly wedded” to the idea that Wilson was faking it, Sears said Hillman commanded the control room to open the cell door for one minute, only to order it closed again because she thought Wilson was breathing.
“The base of his head was folded almost impossibly against the top of his back,” Sears said. “His feet lightly touching the floor.”
After she “casually looked inside” the cell to see a hanging Wilson, Hillman had the door locked and then “strolled” around the facility for 15 minutes, the prosecutor alleged.
“Mr. Wilson was still hanging, motionless in his cell, alone, isolated, abandoned, dying,” Sears said.
After doing her rounds, Hillman circled back to Wilson’s cell, told guards to cut him down, and ordered medical attention. When paramedics arrived, he was dead, Sears said.
The prosecutor said testimony by Rojo, other guards, and several inmates would show that had Hillman permitted Rojo to intervene when he first called, she wouldn’t be on trial for negligent homicide.
“He would be alive today, but Captain Hillman did not allow that to happen,” Sears said, adding that voluminous trial evidence will show the captain had her mind made up before even making it to the cell.
She “decided that Mr. Wilson was faking it, he was faking a hanging, he was playing around,” Sears said.
Wilson struggled with bipolar disorder and other mental health issues for more than 20 years, his relatives said. He was locked up at the lower Manhattan jail complex known as “The Tombs” on a robbery charge for about a month before his death.
His bail was set at $1, but he was held on a parole hold for getting rearrested while he had an open misdemeanor case. The summer before his bust, Wilson was released after serving seven years in prison for attempted robbery.
The 29-year-old’s family members wept in one of the courtroom’s back rows Thursday as the prosecutor delivered his opening argument.
Sears said Hillman committed another crime when she lied in an incident report, claiming she ordered guards to cut Wilson down “immediately.”
Hillman’s lawyer Todd Spodek told jurors that “whatever sympathy” they felt for Wilson was irrelevant. He pinned Wilson’s death on his own actions and dysfunction in the city’s jails.
“The culture in the Department of Corrections is you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Spodek told the court. “You are damned if you follow the rules and you’re damned if you don’t.”
Spodek said Hillman’s skepticism was based on having dealt with previous prisoners who pretended to attempt suicide.
“So she closes the door to go deal with her other responsibilities,” Spodek said. “It makes perfect sense because she didn’t believe it was an emergency.”
Hillman, who was grieving the death of her sister, had “a flashback of her deceased sister’s body” at the funeral home and requested medical attention that she was denied, her lawyer said.
The first witness, Gladys Cambi, the deputy inspector general of the city Department of Investigation, testified about photos of Wilson’s cell. They showed the torn-up linen rags he used to fashion a noose and about a dozen handcrafted red roses he made as a hobby.
Spears said Hillman failed to exercise care for Wilson “who spent his days making red roses from toilet paper and Kool-Aid.”
Hillman, who was arrested in April 2021, has pleaded not guilty to criminally negligent homicide and offering a false instrument for lying on an incident report. She faces up to four years in prison if convicted.
Wilson’s family is suing Hillman, the city, and 10 city Department of Correction staffers in a pending lawsuit filed in Manhattan Supreme Court.
Hillman was suspended after Wilson’s death and has since been moved to modified duty.