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In two Texas prisoner deaths, one former officer is indicted after another's case is cleared

A former correctional officer was charged with aggravated assault by a public servant Thursday in Walker County, a week after another man was cleared of criminal charges in another inmate homicide.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice William G. McConnell Unit at Chase Field in Beeville on Nov. 1, 2013.

Two former Texas prison officers accused of causing the deaths of two inmates in separate incidents emerged from Walker County grand jury proceedings this month with different fates. One of the men was cleared from further criminal prosecution; the other was indicted on a first-degree felony charge.

Yancey Lett, 28, was charged Thursday with aggravated assault by a public servant in the October beating death of 63-year-old Frank Digges, the prosecution told The Texas Tribune on Friday. A week earlier, the same grand jury found there was insufficient evidence to prosecute D’Andre Glasper in Gary Ryan’s homicide.

“We weren’t necessarily surprised at the grand jury’s finding in either matter,” said Jack Choate, who leads Texas’ Special Prosecution Unit for in-prison crime. “In one case, I think the evidence was more consistent and more blatant.”

Lett has not yet been arrested but will be in the coming days, Choate said. If convicted, his punishment would range from five years to life in prison. Neither Lett's nor Glasper's attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment Friday afternoon.

Digges had been in prison for more than 30 years on a life sentence for aggravated robbery. In October, a five-person extraction team was sent into Digges’ cell at the Wynne Unit after the inmate refused to move and was assaultive toward staff, according to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesperson. But the extraction went wrong, and a prison death report says Digges died after being struck “in the back of the head several times with a closed fist, which caused trauma to the brain.” Two ranking officials involved were demoted, and Lett was fired. He’d been with the prison system less than three years.

Glasper, 23, resigned from TDCJ and was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault by a public servant after he forced 58-year-old Ryan down to the floor in a prison shower in August 2018. Ryan — finishing up a five-year sentence for harassment of a public servant — was handcuffed, and Glasper had been ordered earlier that day to stay away from the inmate after a scuffle. Glasper said Ryan was being aggressive and making derogatory remarks, according to a TDCJ release at the time. Ryan died from blunt-force head trauma less than three months before he was set to be released.

Glasper’s and Lett’s cases were taken to a grand jury in a rare set of inmate homicides at separate Huntsville prisons, but they follow a similar criminal case. Last year, a prison sergeant went to trial on an aggravated assault charge for a gruesome 2017 slamming death at the Darrington Unit. He was found not guilty by a Brazoria County jury.

Although an official called the three prisoner deaths an “anomaly,” they occurred in a system where reported cases of major use of force have jumped. The uptick has been blamed on chronic and severe understaffing in prisons, a lack of officer training and more mentally ill prisoners being locked up.

Last month, Joe Buttitta, deputy inspector general for TDCJ’s investigative branch, questioned the amount of head trauma inflicted on Digges with a five-person security team (“I mean, I think five guys can take him”), but he called Glasper’s case and Ryan’s death “a sad situation.”

Choate acknowledged the difference in the “quality of evidence” in the Glasper and Lett criminal cases and emphasized that prison officers have an extra defense because they are allowed to use force to maintain security. For Corey Anderson, Ryan’s nephew, that explanation rings hollow.

“[Glasper] took a man’s life and then got nothing,” he said. “To be taken away the way that he was, by somebody’s hand, and then them not getting punished, you know? It’s not right.”

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