ALTOONA, Pa. — A Pennsylvania prosecutor has ruled that a late police sergeant was justified in using deadly force that resulted in the accidental shooting death of a jail guard during a hostage situation at a county courthouse last fall.
Authorities said an inmate had been taken from the Blair County jail to the courthouse in Altoona for a hearing in November when he allegedly disarmed corrections officer Rhonda Jean Russell. A police sergeant fired a shot at the inmate but hit 47-year-old Russell, a 14-year veteran who was pronounced dead at UPMC Altoona.
District Attorney Pete Weeks said last week that the use of deadly force by the police sergeant, who officials said died several months later of natural causes, was justified under the law. He faulted security procedures in plate at the courthouse and recommended changes that officials said have already begun.
Russell was one of two prison employees who had taken eight prisoners to court that day, according to the district attorney’s office report that relies heavily on a state police investigation requested by the Altoona police department, The (Altoona) Mirror reported. Two sheriff’s deputies were helping the two corrections officers guard the prisoners, but three left to take inmates to prison or hearings, leaving Russell alone with five male inmates.
One inmate, who was awaiting a preliminary hearing on gun and drug charges, asked to use a bathroom and after a handcuff was removed was able to “gain full mobility of both arms and hands” and attacked Russell, driving her into an empty holding cell, the report said.
The police sergeant investigating the commotion saw the inmate in possession of Russell’s gun. pointing it alternately at her and at the police sergeant himself, the report said. Fearing for her safety and his own — and believing he had a clear shot at the inmate’s shoulder — he fired but hit Russell, the report said.
State police said earlier that the inmate would face criminal homicide, attempted criminal homicide, kidnapping and related charges.