Prosecutors seek plea hearings for 2 West Virginia jail officers accused in inmate's death

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Prosecutors have asked a federal court to set plea hearings for two corrections officers on a conspiracy charge stemming from an assault on a jail inmate who later died.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Monica Coleman filed motions Wednesday seeking the hearings for Southern Regional Jail officers Andrew Fleshman and Steven Wimmer.

The officers were charged earlier this week in a criminal information that they conspired to deny Quantez Burks' right to due process of law. That federal charging document is filed with a defendant’s consent and typically signals an intent to plead guilty.

Burks, 37, was a pretrial detainee at the jail in Beaver who died less than a day after he was booked into the jail in March 2022 on a wanton endangerment charge.

According to court documents, Burks tried to push past an officer in order to leave his housing unit. Burks then was escorted to an interview room, where Wimmer and Fleshman allegedly assaulted Burks while he was handcuffed and posed no threat. Burks then was taken to a prison cell in another housing unit where the inmate was assaulted again, prosecutors said.

The state medical examiner's office attributed Burks’ primary cause of death to natural causes, prompting the family to have a private autopsy conducted. The family's attorney revealed at a news conference last year that the second autopsy found the inmate had multiple areas of blunt force trauma on his body, news outlets reported.

“They took a piece of my life away that day for no reason at all, and it still hurts just like it did from the first day,” the inmate's mother, Kimberly Burks, told WVVA-TV on Wednesday. “I pray it never happens to another family and another child because it’s a feeling you can’t shake.”

Republican Gov. Jim Justice ordered an investigation of conditions at the Southern Regional Jail in March 2022 after allegations surfaced of water deprivation, failure to provide toilet paper and inmates having to sleep on hard floors without a mattress. Justice said the state's Department of Homeland Security told him the investigation found no evidence of inhumane treatment.

Kimberly Burks asked Justice during a town hall meeting earlier this year in Beckley to release the jail’s surveillance tapes from the day of her son’s death. She also told the governor that the state’s investigation findings on jail conditions were “a lie.”

News outlets have reported there were more than a dozen deaths at the Southern Regional Jail last year.

A federal lawsuit filed earlier this month seeks to force the state to spend $330 million to improve prison and jail conditions and fill worker vacancies. The lawsuit alleges “inhumane living conditions” in corrections facilities and accuses Justice and others of ignoring overcrowding and failing to provide regular funding for upkeep.