RICHMOND, Va. — Guards and security officials at Virginia's most secure prison conspired with an inmate to give him the opportunity to kill another prisoner, the slain man's mother claims in a lawsuit.
Aaron Cooper, 26, was killed on July 28, 2010, when Robert Gleason strangled him through a separate cage on the recreation yard at the supermax Red Onion State Prison. Gleason, who was serving a life sentence for a 2007 slaying and had killed his cellmate in 2009, had vowed before Cooper's death to keep killing unless he was sentenced to death. Gleason received the death sentence last year.
Kim Strickland claims in a federal lawsuit filed late Friday that Gleason traded favors with prison guards in order to arrange her son's slaying. It accuses prison guards and security officers of not doing required searches, of allowing Gleason to determine which inmates were allowed out that day and where they were positioned, and of arranging for in-person and video monitoring stations to be abandoned.
The lawsuit accuses 19 individuals, from Department of Corrections Director Harold W. Clarke and warden Tracy Ray to several prison guards and investigators, of acts and policies that were "shocking to the conscience of civilized persons and intolerable in a society governed by laws and due process."
In an interview from death row on Monday, Gleason said those named in the lawsuit did not know his intentions to kill Cooper. But he said they put him in a position to do so.
"There's no way in the world if they would have done their job that I could have killed him," Gleason said. "They ignored all of these warnings. All of them."
In addition to the threats — both in court and in interviews with the AP —to continue killing if not given the death penalty, another inmate testified at Gleason's sentencing in September that he warned institutional investigators on two occasions that something was going to happen on the recreation yard. Inmates are held in isolation 23 hours a day at the prison, and inmates are held in individual cages in the recreation yard.
Gleason arranged for another inmate to make a braided necklace that could be used as a noose. The lawsuit claims he conspired with four guards to orchestrate a recreation time without the required search so that he could sneak the noose onto the yard. He also told them which inmates to put into the other adjoining cages and to place Cooper next to him. Gleason then conspired with the chief of security and five other officers to "create the absences necessary for no officer to view or enter the rec yard during Gleason's project," the lawsuit claims.
Gleason told Cooper, who was serving 34 years for robbery and carjacking, that he needed his help to measure a religious necklace. Cooper put his back to Gleason in the cage, wrapped the necklace around his neck and gave the other end to Gleason, who put one foot onto the cage and pulled to strangle Cooper. One hour and 14 minutes after Cooper was put into the cage beside Gleason, two officers returned to find him dead.
The lawsuit also claims the security officers falsified a required head count that was to be done while the inmates were on the recreation yard. Prison records falsely show everyone was accounted for at 1:28 p.m., but video surveillance shows that no officers returned to the yard until 1:43 p.m., when Cooper was found dead.
The lawsuit was filed by Abingdon attorney Mary Lynn Tate, who did not immediately return a message seeking further comment.
Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. He did not immediately answer questions on whether any of those named in the lawsuit had been reprimanded. A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office said he had not seen the lawsuit.
Strickland said Monday she hoped to see the prison system held accountable.
"Finally my son's going to see some justice," she said.
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