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North Country News

Legal Proceedings Continue In Wake Of Prison Escape

One case was resolved Tuesday with a plea agreement, but there will still be more legal proceedings in the wake of the escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the Clinton Correctional facility.

The two convicted murderers escaped from the Dannemora prison in the early morning hours of June 6th after cutting through walls and pipes and shimmying their way to freedom through a manhole in the center of the village. Three weeks later Richard Matt was dead and David Sweat was wounded and captured.

Now, attention has turned to legal proceedings and investigations.

In the midst of the search, prison tailor shop employee Joyce Mitchell was charged with aiding the inmates in their escape.  She pleaded guilty Tuesday to promoting prison contraband first degree and criminal facilitating in the fourth degree.  Her lawyer, Stephen Johnston, advised her to accept the plea agreement.   “There was overwhelming evidence that she did what she admitted to in court. And number two I was fearful of some additional charges so it seemed like the best thing to do.”

Mitchell’s conversations with investigators, first obtained by NBC News, indicate a sometimes sordid relationship with the two inmates.  She says there was never an intimate relationship with David Sweat, but Matt made her feel special and there was a sexual relationship between the two. So she brought in items that they requested.  She knew of the escape plan and told investigators:  “I was aware these tools were being used by Inmate Matt and Inmate Sweat to escape.”  She states that she continued to help them because she “…was caught up in the fantasy…” and “…enjoyed the attention …and the thought of a different life.”  Again, defense attorney Johnston.  “She got in over her head into something that she never should have started. But she realizes that she made a horrible mistake.  Matt got her to feeling good about herself and she was swept off her feet a bit.  Then when she realized who she was dealing with everything changed.”

Although Mitchell is now a convicted criminal, she does retain the state pension from her nearly $58,000 annual salary from the New York State Department of Corrections.  And despite having been gainfully employed, she was assigned a lawyer whose fees must now be paid by taxpayers.  Area 8 Clinton County Legislator Republican Mark Dame is outraged.   “When we get the bill from the attorney I’m going to see if we can protest it. It’s just an insult that somebody who had a middle class job, was paid by those taxpayers and has assets and committed a crime of her own free will causing this whole debacle that we should have to pick up her tab.  It’s not a matter of money. It’s really a matter of principle. It’s adding insult to injury.”

While the debate over the Mitchell case continues, there are two other legal proceedings in the pipeline.
Corrections officer Gene Palmer is charged with promoting prison contraband, a felony, two counts of tampering with physical evidence, both felonies, and one count of official misconduct, a misdemeanor. District Attorney Andrew Wylie says the Palmer case is not as cut-and-dried as Mitchell’s.   “Plea negotiations with Palmer’s attorney have failed and Palmer’s attorney has advised us in writing that Palmer will not waive his right to Grand Jury.  The case will be presented in early August to the Clinton County Grand Jury.”

Palmer’s Albany-based lawyer William Dreyer told WAMC he has no comment on the Mitchell proceedings nor the comments made by the District Attorney.  

There are also charges of escape in the first degree pending against Sweat.  Wylie expects to present that case in early August.   “I cannot hit him any harder than he’s been hit with a life without parole sentence.  But to proceed with this investigation to indict Mr. Sweat with the escape in the first degree will allow the Department of Corrections to enhance their ability to sustain penalty or sentence upon Mr. Sweat.”

Under Mitchell’s plea agreement, she forfeits any jury trial and must cooperate with the NYS Inspector General’s investigation.  She will be sentenced September 28th and faces 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison.

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