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Mark Cooper retrial: Former co-worker testifies about inmate death at county jail

In World
April 20, 2024

Corrections officers for the Richland County Jail are trained not to put their feet on inmates when trying to restrain them, a former supervisor testified Friday.

Jamaal O’Dell worked for the sheriff’s office for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant in 2020. He was the supervisor the night of an incident involving inmate Alexander Rios and other corrections officers.

Rios, 28, died following a struggle with several officers after he ran past them and out of a holding cell on Sept. 19, 2019.

One of those officers was Mark Cooper, 57, who is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and a single count of reckless homicide in connection with the incident.

Drew Wood, from the Ohio Attorney General's Office, asks a question of a witness in the Mark Cooper retrial on Friday in Richland County Common Pleas Court. In the background is a video from the county jail.

Drew Wood, from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, asks a question of a witness in the Mark Cooper retrial on Friday in Richland County Common Pleas Court. In the background is a video from the county jail.

His retrial is taking place in common pleas court. In November, Judge Brent Robinson declared a mistrial after jurors could not reach a verdict on any of the counts.

Cooper, described at the time as weighing 250 pounds, can be seen in video putting both feet on Rios’ back and later kneeling on his upper back area, near the neck. The state maintains Cooper’s actions led to the inmate’s death.

Outside the jury’s presence, Robinson read O’Dell his Miranda rights, even though the state said it has no intention of pursuing any charges against the retired lieutenant.

Former corrections lieutenant reviews jail video of struggle

Drew Wood, representing the state for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, went through a jail video with O’Dell, asking him questions at different points.

Rios was in a holding cell after reportedly saying he was going to harm himself. He was in the jail on a warrant.

Wearing a suicide smock, Rios was standing on a dividing wall when O’Dell tried to get him to comply.

“I spoke to him at length and decided that him being in that cell was not safe for him,” O’Dell said, adding he thought Rios might need medical attention because he was behaving erratically.

O’Dell said the goal was to put Rios in a restraint chair. O’Dell started recording on a camcorder, a practice the local jailers use when entering a cell.

“We gave him an opportunity to comply first,” O’Dell said.

On the video, Rios can be seen rushing past corrections officers, into the book-in area. Several of them struggled to subdue Rios in an incident that went on for nearly five minutes.

Late in the incident, Rios still reportedly had his hand on a cuff. When Rios’ hands were cuffed and his legs were shackled, corrections officers told him to get to his feet.

But Rios was limp by that time. The video showed him turning blue.

O’Dell said corrections officers tried to revive Rios with a defibrillator until a squad from the Mansfield Fire Department arrived.

Rios was later taken to OhioHealth Mansfield Hospital. His family took him off life support eight days later.

Former Richland County sheriff's Lt. Jamaal O'Dell demonstrates what was happening in a struggle with inmate Alexander Rios during the retrial of Mark Cooper on Friday afternoon.

Former Richland County sheriff’s Lt. Jamaal O’Dell demonstrates what was happening in a struggle with inmate Alexander Rios during the retrial of Mark Cooper on Friday afternoon.

On direct examination, O’Dell said deadly force was not used in the struggle. Wood asked him if putting feet on an inmate’s back is an acceptable form of restraint.

“In a normal use of force, no,” O’Dell said.

Defense attorney asks about body scanner video

In the afternoon session, defense attorney James Mayer III cross-examined O’Dell and focused on the body scan video.

Rios can be seen taking something from his jail jumpsuit, then setting it by behind the scanner. The corrections officer was not paying attention to Rios, prompting Mayer to ask O’Dell what should have happened.

The defense theory is that Rios was under the influence of methamphetamine during the struggle.

“The officer should have alerted the inmate and asked for another officer or supervisor,” O’Dell said, adding the furtive movements warranted a strip search.

Regarding the violent struggle between Rios and corrections officers, O’Dell said he had never experienced such an incident in his 20-year stint at the county jail.

“He (Rios) was presenting an unusual amount of strength,” O’Dell said. “… He resisted until the very end.”

Cooper was not present at the beginning of the encounter, then was inadvertently hit in the hand by a taser. Mayer seemed to imply on the stand that was a reason the defendant put his feet on Rios instead of using his hands.

On redirect, Wood referenced O’Dell’s comments about resisting until the end. Wood pointed out that two officers were standing by while their counterparts struggled with Rios.

O’Dell had previously said that if Rios had agreed to “cuff up” while in the holding cell, the struggle would have never happened.

Wood asked if it was “kind of silly” to keep going back, pointing out that if Rios hadn’t been in jail, he wouldn’t have been involved in the incident, either.

Wood further asked about the jail’s policy regarding use of deadly force. According to the policy, deadly force “must be limited to what is known or reasonably known by the officer.”

Since Cooper wasn’t there at the beginning, Wood seemed to suggest he didn’t know details about what led to the fight.

Jurors submitted a couple questions for O’Dell. One wanted to know why corrections officers weren’t supposed to put their feet on an inmate.

“We don’t want to create a situation that creates maximum harm to someone,” O’Dell said. “If the situation is out of control, other tactics could be considered.”

Alexander Rios’ mother takes witness stand

The final witness Friday was Toni Mould, Rios’ mother. She described her son as funny, sweet and kind.

Rios’ struggles with addiction began in high school. In the summer before his death, Rios was clean, his mother said, but he seemed “a little different” in the days leading to his arrest.

After the incident at the jail, Mould went to the hospital to see Rios, who was hooked up to a ventilator. She said he was unconscious and shaking uncontrollably.

Wood asked her what happened when the family decided to take Rios off the ventilator.

“He gasped for air, and then he passed,” she replied.

The retrial will not resume until Tuesday, with the state presenting its final witness, expected to be lead investigator Eric Lehnhart from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

mcaudill@gannett.com

419-521-7219

X: @MarkCau32059251

This article originally appeared on Mansfield News Journal: Manslaughter trial of ex-Richland County Ohio Jail officer continues

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