By Danae Snell
SACRAMENTO – A Sacramento County Superior Court preliminary hearing here exposed the particular circumstances of inmate Darryl Staples, who was found unresponsive in a pool of his own blood in his cell February 15, 2016.
His bunkmate, Rambo Martin, has been accused as the only possible suspect, and after the hearing late last week will stand trial for the death.
The facts of the case, as related by a half dozen witnesses for the prosecution, were the following:
Correctional officers received reports at 8:20 p.m. that there was “a man down.” Although prison staff responded immediately and administered life saving measures, 53-year-old Staples was pronounced dead at 8:48 p.m.
Correctional Officer Alan Cruz from the California State Prison in Sacramento was one of the first to respond to the scene and the first witness Deputy District Attorney A.J. Pongratz summoned to the stand September 9, 2020.
According to Officer Cruz, the incident began when his control officer informed him that “there was an issue at cell 132 and that there was banging on the door.” With this information, Officer Cruz immediately went to the C Section of the prison where he “saw a flickering of lights going on and off”—which is “a common way for an inmate to get the attention of a correctional officer.”
As Officer Cruz arrived at the cell, he found the alleged perpetrator, Martin, standing in the window with Staples lying face down. Cruz could not get him to move.
Unsure of what events occurred inside this cell, Officer Cruz continued to proceed with caution, claiming, “I opened the food port and secured Martin in handcuffs. Then I activated my personal alarm device and waited for responding staff to arrive. When responding staff arrived I signaled for my control booth officer to open the door.”
Correctional Lieutenant Ryan Couch said his type of cell differed from many others within this facility and others. This cell was described as a “bedrock cell”—which has beds on each side of the wall with “approximately three feet between each bed.”
After quickly evaluating the scene, Lt. Couch noted, “I gave direction for the door to be opened so we can assess inmate Staples.” However, this was halted insofar as the door could not fully open due to it being “jammed with cardboard.”
This caused the door to only open halfway and delayed staff from assessing the unresponsive Staples inside. Although this delay affected their response to the issue, Lt. Couch continued to inform the court that “[t]here was no way to indicate if someone put it there intentionally.”
Lt. Couch “determined that Staples was definitely in need of medical attention, he was not moving. I noticed his chest was not raising and I turned around to order some officers to put on personal protective equipment due to the amount of blood in the cell.”
Once staff was able to assess Staples, Registered Nurse Trisha Whaley from the California State Prison, Sacramento, said she detected a slight pulse—she then instructed the officers that they needed to roll him on his back to start CPR.
The next sequence of events remains unclear, insofar out of all six individuals that took the stand each alleged that they “did not recall” how Staples was taken out of the cell.
However, photos taken by staff after the incident show a blood trail of Staples appearing to have been dragged out—which could have been the case, as Lt. Couch and RN Whaley noted there was not enough room to put the gurney next to Staples in between the two bunks, because it would not lie flat.
Once Staples was taken out of the cell, “CPR was begun, an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) was placed, oxygen was applied, and a code III ambulance was called,” according to RN Whaley.
RN Whaley informed the court that the AED machine “advised no shock and to continue CPR.” This action of CPR lasted approximately three minutes, which then resulted in his being transported to TTA and eventually pronounced dead by the physician on duty.
In RN Whaley’s report, she noted an injury on his head that was actively bleeding at the time and another injury to his left eye area, which also had blood present.
Correctional Officer Kevin Lee conducted his portion of the investigation by taking “91 photographs of the cell and the items inside the cell” after the incident occurred. The DDA summoned Officer Lee to the stand to ensure the photos Lee took were the same photos he was using as evidence in the courtroom.
Officer Lee described the “red pooling in these photos” as blood—which was depicted all throughout the photos.
Sergeant Haydel Mitchell, who was promoted in 2017 and served as a correctional officer at the time of the incident, conducted his portion of the investigation by taking a series of photographs of victim Staples.
During taking these photographs it became apparent to Sgt. Mitchell that Staples endured significant injuries before his death. Sgt. Mitchell observed trauma to the front and back of his head and he also observed a lack of “boxer injuries” on the victim’s knuckles—which could be signs of mutual combat.
Assistant Public Defender Ryan Jay argued this by pointing out that “the discoloration on Staples’ knuckles appear to be darker than the rest of his fingers.”
However, Sgt. Mitchell responded by informing the court, “Possibly it could be shadows because these are copies of the actual pictures and mine are not as crystal clear as yours. It looks like it could be darker, but I cannot determine if it is a shadow or blood or bruising.”
The last individual that was involved in this incident was Correctional Officer Jacob Kern from the California State Prison, Sacramento, who escorted the defendant, Martin, from the holding cell he was placed in after the incident back to his cell the day after—February 16, 2016 at 3:15 p.m.
During this escort, the defendant allegedly made a spontaneous statement to Officer Kern, “I need my meds, the shock is wearing off.”
PD Jay objected under Miranda foundation; however, the DDA argued that no questioning took place and that the officer’s capacity was to escort not to question the defendant.
Officer Kern claimed he followed this statement by asking what he meant by this, but Martin just repeatedly stated that “the shock was wearing off.”
Officer Kern informed Martin that he would inform the nurse and continued to escort him to his cell. At 5:20 p.m. Officer Kern encountered Martin again and witnessed another spontaneous statement. Officer Kern informed the court that the defendant allegedly stated, “I feel bad for what I did.”
Throughout Kern’s testimony it became apparent to the court that there were two different reports submitted by Kern that held a key distinction. The report that the court held stated that Kern was escorting him to the nurse at 5:20 p.m., however, Kern’s report claimed he appeared before Martin’s cell during “program time.”
This distinction led to confusion inside the courtroom because Officer Kern did not recall if he escorted Martin at the time or not. PD Jay argued that if Officer Kern was not escorting Martin at 5:20 p.m., then he lacked any justified reason to be at his cell.
Officer Kern claimed he was most likely at Mr. Martin’s for two reasons—“chow time or med time.”
PD Jay still remained unsatisfied, arguing that medication is only given to inmates by a social worker or a pharmacist, meaning that Officer Kern could not have been at Martin’s cell alone if it was med time, adding that Officer Kern went to Martin’s cell with the intention of “conducting some form of questioning to get an incriminating statement.”
PD Jay motioned to suppress Officer Kern’s testimony; however, Judge Allen Sumner denied this motion without prejudice claiming that “we heard a consistent count from the officer that he did not question Mr. Martin that would reasonably prompt incriminating statements.”
DDA Pongratz noted, “In this particular case, the People would ask the court to accept all the People’s exhibits and the testimony of all the witnesses with the exception of Officer Kern’s. This evidence within itself is enough for a holding order.”
Judge Sumner made his ruling by stating, “Without considering Officer Kern’s testimony, I do find that the People have presented sufficient evidence to hold you to answer. There were only two people in the cell, one of them is dead and the other one is you, so…”
Defendant Martin will be back in the courtroom November 16, for two other cases involving possession of cocaine and a weapon inside prison.
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