Maximum insecurity 

Nobody paid attention the night Damon Tyrone Lee was beaten to death inside a Georgia prison cell

Page 5 of 7

Lee, the guard wrote, appeared to be sleeping.

Within the hour, Prietz began passing out breakfast trays upstairs. He stopped at No. 235. "Who's not eating?" Prietz asked, according to an orderly who was on the hall. This time, Prietz claims he noticed blood not just on Murphy's bed, but on his shirt, his socks and the wall. "I told Murphy to wake up Damon," Prietz wrote. "He told me that Damon did not want to be bothered."

Prietz ran downstairs to grab officer Hill and two nurses who were passing out medication. The four hurried to No. 235 and repeatedly called to Lee. "Inmate Murphy was holding a blanket up so we could not see Inmate Lee," according to one nurse's statement.

"He then turned around and walked back to the bed," the other nurse wrote, "and started eating his breakfast."

The sergeant on duty is required to be present if the cell door is opened. Hill radioed him. Nearly 20 minutes passed between the time Prietz carried the breakfast trays to the bloody cell and the time Sgt. Alfred Favors arrived to open the door, at 5:30 a.m.

Inside the cell, the sergeant and guards found Lee on the bottom bunk, under a blanket and atop a blood-drenched sheet. "Blood was noted all over the room," a nurse recalled.

The guards and sergeant cuffed Murphy and led him down the hall to the shower. According to a local sheriff's deputy who'd arrived, Murphy kept saying, "He's all right. He'll be OK."

Lee's eyes were swollen shut and blue. Blood was caked around his nose and on his face. On his neck was a bite wound.

The nurses worked to revive him. One wiped Lee's face and began CPR. On the first compression, blood trickled out of his mouth. The other worked an air tube through his tightened jaws and his constricted airway. They attached electrodes to Lee's chest to try to restart his heart. Medics arrived at 5:50 a.m. and took over. Fifteen minutes later, they quit. Lee had been dead -- from a broken neck, lacerated spinal cord and blows to the neck and abdomen -- for some time.

Murphy was arrested that morning and was indicted four months later for Lee's murder. At a January 2003 court hearing, during which Murphy was supposed to plead guilty, he changed his mind at the last minute.

But he did tell the judge he "killed an innocent man."

Cassandra Lee had just returned home from dropping off her 7-year-old daughter at school. For the past three years, she'd shared a home in the Atlanta 'burbs with her mother, but their native Waycross was still home. Lee's mother, Johnnie Kitchen, was about to make the five-hour drive down south to visit family and pick up her tax check from her trusted accountant.

That's when the phone rang. Kitchen answered. Autry's warden, Carl Humphrey, was on the line. Kitchen recalls the unceremonious statement that followed: "I'm sorry to tell you that your son Damon Tyrone has died a mysterious death." That was the last conversation Kitchen had with the warden or anyone from the Department of Corrections.

She says she didn't believe him. Her son wasn't dead. They made a mistake. Her daughter was hysterical. Kitchen went on with her day as if nothing had happened, quietly repeating to herself that Damon was alive. She got in her car and drove to Waycross.

It wasn't until she walked into the funeral home to identify the body that Kitchen accepted her son was gone. Despite his extensive injuries, she recalls him as he'd always been. "He looked peaceful," she says. "No hate."

Her own anger didn't sink in until later.

Cassandra Lee wanted answers from the start. She worked in the corrections industry, after all. She knew 22-year-old men didn't die mysteriously.

Considering Murphy was charged with Lee's murder, there should have been no mystery on the prison's part about the cause of Lee's death. Murphy is scheduled to go to trial this month.

Nor did Autry officials wonder how such a beating could have happened in what's supposed to be the prison's most secure dorm. Clearly the guards neglected their duty, according to prison paperwork filed in relation to their subsequent terminations.


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