by Cris Ritchie — Editor
HAZARD – Two deputy jailers accused of beating an inmate to death pleaded not guilty and will remain in jail this week as a judge denied requests to reduce bond.
Damon Hickman and William C. Howell made their initial appearances in Perry Circuit Court on Thursday for arraignment on charges of first-degree manslaughter. The two were indicted Aug. 2 on allegations they were involved in an altercation with 54-year-old Larry Trent on July 9 which led to Trent's death just hours later. According to a preliminary report issued from the state medical examiner's office, Trent, who was an inmate at the jail at the time, suffered skeletal and visceral injuries as the result of a “jail beating.”
Attorneys for both Hickman, 36, of Hazard, and Howell, 56, of Floyd County, waived formal reading of their indictments and entered not guilty pleas on behalf of their clients.
Defense attorney Kevin Johnson also made a request to reduce Hickman's bond, which is currently set at $75,000 cash.
“Mr. Hickman has been an employee of this county for 11 years,” Johnson said. “From what I can find in his record he has never before been charged with a crime, ever. He would willingly comply with any non-financial conditions like home incarceration. We ask the court to consider a surety bond and home incarceration.”
Howell's attorney, Brent Flowers of the public defender's office, also requested a reduction, noting Howell also has no criminal record and has maintained employment as a jail employee in both Knott and Perry counties for a number of years without any reported incidents. He added the charge against Howell is not considered an intentional crime and is one of a more reckless or wanton nature.
“We think in this case a surety bond would be appropriate, and we would accept home incarceration with it,” Flowers said.
Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Josh Mullins objected to a reduction, however, saying the seriousness of the allegations should preclude a lower bond.
“Due to the nature and severity of the charges, the Commonwealth would object to a surety bond,” Mullins said.
Before making his ruling, Circuit Judge William Engle requested information from Mullins and the lead investigator in the case, Det. Joel Abner with the Kentucky State Police. Engle first asked what evidence led to the indictment, to which Mullins answered there exists a video of the incident which the grand jury viewed on two occasions.
Engle then asked Det. Abner to describe generally what the video shows, if Hickman and Howell can be clearly identified, and if it can be determined whether the two were punching, kicking, or otherwise committing actions to injure Trent. He also inquired as to whether Trent died at the jail.
Abner said the video shows the defendants “both punching and kicking” Trent, though in the absence of the final autopsy report it is currently inconclusive as to whether Trent was already dead when medics arrived at the scene. He did note, however, that medics were unable to revive Trent at the jail before he was transported to the Hazard ARH where he was later pronounced dead. Abner added the autopsy report should be finalized in the coming days.
Engle noted a presumption of innocence in the case, but said the circumstances as described by Det. Abner, along with the grand jury's indictment, leads him to find that Hickman and Howell could represent a danger to others if released on bond, and denied their requests for a reduction.
Hickman and Howell are scheduled to appear in court again on Aug. 15 for a status hearing, at which time Engle will consider consolidating the two cases. They are set for a jury trial on Feb. 3, 2014.
Hickman and Howell are currently lodged in the Leslie County Detention Center.