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Jury returns mixed verdict in Wende inmate’s attack on guards

After more than a full day of deliberations, a State Supreme Court jury came back with a split verdict in the case of an inmate accused of attacking corrections officers in a state prison.

The jurors acquitted Elijah Bell, 51, of the most serious charge against him, attempted assault of an officer with a weapon, a Class C felony. However, they did find Bell guilty of three Class D felonies: two counts of assault with intent to cause physical injury to an officer and possession of dangerous prison contraband – a small shank made from tape and a piece of thick wire.

Bell, who is serving a sentence of 12 years to life for a prior assault conviction, was accused of attacking officers in June 2014 when they tried to take him from his cell in the Wende Correctional Facility to the prison’s medical unit for an examination.

Several of the officers testified about the confrontation, all reporting roughly the same version of events. They said one officer went to the door of Bell’s cell and instructed the inmate to come to the door and turn around so he could be handcuffed. Instead of presenting his wrists, they said, Bell elbowed the guard, pulled the shank from his waistband and swung it overhand toward the man. The guard said he ducked, grabbed Bell and pushed him into the cell. The other officers testified that they came in the cell and subdued Bell, who was kicking and struggling.

He was eventually placed on a gurney and taken to the medical unit.

Up until this time, Bell had refused to talk to his court-appointed attorney, John Ange, privately or in court, about his defense. However, after hearing the officers, Bell said he wanted to take the stand himself.

In his version of the incident, he had been refusing to leave his cell for weeks out of fear of the staff and other inmates, and he didn’t want to leave that day, either. He told the jury that the shank wasn’t his, that he never went to his cell door when ordered to, and that he did not shove the officer who came in to get him. Instead, he testified, he was hit on the side of his head while sitting on his bed, and that one officer used his handcuffs “like brass knuckles” on him. The other officers then tackled and forcibly removed him against his will, he said.

Bell was adamant that he never tried to stab anyone and that he never tried to hurt anyone. He was, he said, “set up.”

The jurors did not know before they began deliberations that Bell’s previous conviction was for stabbing a person in the New York City subway – information that Ange said, out of their hearing, “would be providing them with an irresistible link to the current charges.”

Justice Russell P. Buscaglia agreed.

Jurors also didn’t hear the details of Bell’s other arrests and convictions, including drug offenses and a robbery 30 years ago, crimes that Ange said were irrelevant because they were so “remote.”

The jury eventually determined that Bell did injure officers by kicking them when they tried to subdue him, but found him not guilty of swinging the shank at the first officer. They did, however, decide the shank was his.

Bell himself testified that he also was accused in 2007 of having contraband – homemade weapons made from a razor and a can lid, and that added eight months to his sentence. Before he was charged in this incident, he would have been eligible for parole in March 2015. Before these convictions, his next parole hearing was scheduled for November.

Bell now faces a possible sentence of up to seven years more in prison when he returns to court June 8.