Guard implicated in Matt prison break pleads guilty

The Associated PressIn this Nov. 4, 2015, file photo, Gene Palmer, a suspended corrections officer from Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora appears in Clinton County Court in Plattsburgh. Palmer has admitted he unwittingly helped two killers escape from the northern New York prison by smuggling in tools.

PLATTSBURGH — Gene Palmer was sentenced to six months in Clinton County Jail and fined more than $5,000 Monday morning after pleading guilty to reduced charges in connection with the escape from Clinton Correctional Facility.

The sentencing of the correction officer on one felony and two misdemeanors ends a long negotiation between Palmer's attorneys and Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie in the high-profile case.

Murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from Clinton Correctional Facility early June 6, 2015.

"We finally, ultimately agreed to defer it to the judge's discretion," Palmer's attorney William Dreyer told the media after the sentencing.

"We had hoped for a sentence that did not include any prison time, but under the circumstances, we think the judge's reasoned rationale and the ultimate sentence is a fair one.

Palmer, Dreyer said, "is satisfied."

Palmer was facing two counts of first-degree promoting prison contraband, a felony; two counts of tampering with evidence, a felony; and one count of official misconduct, a misdemeanor, for his interactions with Matt and Sweat.

The main charge focused on Palmer bringing Matt a screwdriver and needle-nose pliers so he could adjust an electrical unit on a catwalk behind his cell, which allowed him to cook on a hot plate more efficiently in his cell. 

He pleaded guilty to that one as part of the plea agreement.

Palmer was also charged for delivering a package of frozen hamburger to Matt at the behest of prison tailor shop supervisor — and escape collaborator — Joyce Mitchell.

That charge was reduced to a misdemeanor largely because Palmer said did not know that hacksaw blades were secreted inside the meat.

Mitchell pleaded guilty in July to her role in the escape and was sentenced to 2 1/3 to 7 years. She is serving her time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women in Westchester County.

Palmer pleaded guilty to the official misconduct charge, a misdemeanor lodged against him for bringing in paint for Matt to use in creating paintings.

The felony tampering counts, for attempting to burn paintings considered evidence in the escape, were dropped.

Judge Kevin K. Ryan could have sentenced Palmer to 2 1/3 to 7 years in state prison but said that he would not do that.

"Sending a (correction) officer to state prison as an inmate would create a monumental challenge for the prison," he said.

Ryan pointed to a report prepared by the Clinton County Department of Probation that showed that Palmer had a very successful 28-year career as a correction officer who was often lauded for his efforts and even decorated.

He was known as an officer who would do favors for inmates in exchange for valuable information that warded off violence in the prison on several occasions, the report said.

Dreyer said Palmer acted only in the best interests of the prison, the inmates and his fellow officers and never dreamed he would be inadvertently aiding an escape.

"He thought at the time that doing some of these things with the inmates in exchange for information was a reality that existed within the prison ... he believes, and other officers believe, that he headed off, in some cases, riots, in some cases planned attacks against other individuals," the attorney said.

"It's hard to dispute that he believed that he was actually accomplishing some good, but in accomplishing something good, he had to acknowledge that he had to relax the rules."

Dreyer said Palmer, who was taken from court with his hands cuffed behind his back, was remorseful.

"He is happy that this is over," the attorney said.

"He is unhappy that he did what he did, and he is remorseful about what he did. It ruined a 28-year career." 

The judge acknowledged Palmer's efforts to gain information from inmates but said that was not an excuse.

"That the culture in the prison exists that Mr. Palmer describes I do not doubt," Ryan said.

But even if the prison administration turned a blind eye to Palmer's methods, which could have implied tacit approval, it would not absolve the officer of his actions, the judge said, and he and other officers must be responsible for their own behavior.

Ryan said that no matter how well-intentioned Palmer was, some form of incarceration was warranted because the screwdriver and needle-nosed pliers are dangerous instruments that never should have been brought into the prison. And, the judge said, Palmer never should have allowed Matt onto the catwalk behind his cell.

Palmer agreed to resign from his job and to pay fines totaling $5,000 and a $375 court surcharge.

In agreeing to the plea, Palmer waived his right to a trial and to appeal the sentence.

He will be eligible for release from Clinton County Jail in four months, Dreyer said.

"He has the ability to recover and move on, and that is what he plans to do," he said about his client.

The DA told the judge that Palmer was aware that he could face up to a year in jail upon sentencing after the plea, but the DA also told the judge that he agreed to leave sentencing up to him.

Wylie left the courtroom after sentencing and did not address the media.

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