Sterling Cole was a father of five, a loyal Eagles fan, and a handyman and mason whose favorite project was fixing up his own house.
In September, he landed in jail after police accused him of shooting another man in the back, about two blocks away from his Carroll Park home in West Philadelphia.
The criminal case was just the start of his troubles though.
In April, seven months after he went to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Holmesburg, another inmate beat him to death.
That news never made it past prison walls, even though it was the first homicide in the city prisons system in two years. Prisons officials didn’t notify a city-appointed prisons advisory board, Cole’s attorney or even his family of his death, nor the circumstances surrounding it.
“They (prisons officials) knew I represented the guy, and they never told his family,” said attorney W. Fred Harrison Jr., who learned of Cole’s death from other CFCF inmates he represents. “I was the one who told his family. That’s deplorable. They should at least make contact with his lawyer and his family.”
WHYY learned of the case through a routine Right-to-Know request on city inmate deaths. (A city spokeswoman disputes Harrison’s claim, saying a prison chaplain did notify Cole’s family of the incident.)
Reformers say the secrecy surrounding his death raises questions about what else could be happening in city prisons that the public never learns about and fosters the appearance of a cover-up, whether real or imagined. Such secrecy too easily enables authorities to dodge accountability, when the public doesn’t know how public officials handle such crises, reformers add.
“Transparency is vitally important in this regard,” said attorney Angus Love, executive director of the Institutional Law Project.
Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, agreed: “I would think that the first thing (prisons officials) would want to do when something this serious goes wrong at the prison is to assure the public that they are making a very serious investigation into it. If they don’t even acknowledge that it happened, then we don’t know that they’re seriously investigating it. As a taxpayer who is paying for the treatment of the people in that jail, it is not acceptable to me, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone, that we don’t know how the prison is responding to this tragedy.”
Innocent until proven guilty
Like Cole, many of the 6,700 inmates in Philadelphia jails are pre-trial defendants who have not been convicted, Roper said. (City data shows 30 percent, or more than 2,000 inmates, are pretrial defendants who have no other holding matters.)
They deserve safety while they await their fate, Roper added.
“Anybody can end up in a jail,” she said. “All they’ve done is get arrested. Jail is supposed to be a temporary situation. It’s not supposed to be the end of your life. If it does end your life, something’s gone very, very wrong, and we need to know that that’s being acknowledged and being fixed.”
Prisons spokeswoman Shawn Hawes said she couldn’t release any details of Cole’s death because it remains under active investigation. Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, a police spokesman, said he likewise couldn’t comment beyond confirming that homicide investigators have “a person or persons of interest” in the case. Lorenzo North, president of the union that represents correctional officers, said he didn’t know anything about Cole’s death.
Harrison said other CFCF inmates told him that someone ambushed Cole in the prison yard. Cole remained unconscious in the hospital for a few days before he died at Aria Health’s Torresdale campus, Harrison added. The Medical Examiner’s office listed his cause of death as complications from head trauma.
It was the first homicide in city prisons since inmate Sylvester Smith attacked his cellmate Darryl Warthen in April 2015. Smith has repeatedly been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial in Warthen’s case, court records show.
While a prison homicide is unusual, inmate deaths aren’t uncommon.
Cole was one of five inmates to die in custody this year, according to city records. The Medical Examiner’s office determined the other four died of natural causes. Last year, 10 inmates died in custody, with the M.E.’s office ruling five suicides, three natural causes, one an accidental drug overdose and another undetermined.
Some cases have led to lawsuits.
Kenyada Jones died in custody last year, after overdosing on a blood-pressure medication prison medical staff gave him. The M.E.’s office listed his cause of death as hypertensive cardiovascular disease, resulting from ingesting 11 times the maximum therapeutic amount of that medicine, according to a wrongful death lawsuit Jones’ mother filed in March. In that federal complaint, she blames the city, CFCF, the city’s adult parole and probation department, the parole agent and supervisor who sent Jones to prison, and the prison’s medical providers, Corizon Health and MHM Services.
How Sterling Cole ended up in jail
As for Cole, he went to prison on Sept. 16, three days after he allegedly shot a man on Frazier Street. He was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, and related offenses and ordered held on $500,000 bail, court records show.
A criminal complaint on the case gives just a bare-bones account of the shooting. Harrison had a few more details, saying Cole told him he was in the area of the shooting but didn’t shoot the man. Prosecutors had circumstantial evidence but no eyewitnesses in the case, Harrison added.
Court records show the case was continued several times before a judge in March set an Oct. 3 trial date.
But then Cole died.
Cole’s family couldn’t be reached for comment. But his friend, Greg Brown, called Cole’s death “a horrible tragedy. It kinda left us all speechless.”
He remembers Cole, who would have turned 49 the day after he died, as a friend who liked playing video games and hanging out with friends over a few plates of oysters and clams.
Brown wonders why, three months after Cole’s slaying, police haven’t arrested anyone.
“They definitely know (who did it), because you’re behind a wall with a bunch of people, and I find it hard to believe that no cameras recorded it, or there was no staff around,” said Brown, 53, of Cobbs Creek. “So I look forward to the findings of the investigation to find out what actually happened.”
With the recent indictment of Philadelphia’s former District Attorney Seth Williams and the city’s notorious history of corruption, Brown can’t help but muse that something sinister lurks behind the secrecy surrounding his death.
“We’re talking about the city of Philadelphia,” Brown said. “The city of Philadelphia has their own methods of handling things, or not handling things, looking as high up as the District Attorney. If there’s problems in the D.A.’s office, I’m sure the penal system has their fair share of things that they have to deal with as well.”
That’s a concern one of Cole’s longtime neighbors shares.
“Trying to keep stuff like that under wraps, to me, is not a good thing,” said Geanna Davis, 54, a block captain who lives across the street from Cole’s old house. “I could see them sweeping it under the rug like it never happened. Sometimes in the system, when people feel like you don’t have family to support you, then they feel like they could just do whatever. Don’t nobody show any interest in you, they push you to the curb and just do whatever.”
Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the mayor was notified of Cole’s death — and the prisons advisory board will receive the findings of the investigation, once it’s complete.
“Mr. Cole’s death is upsetting and something we make every effort to avoid,” Kenney said through Hitt. “We take the protection and security of our wards seriously. We’re taking every appropriate measure to prevent these incidents in the future, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Two steps forward, one step back
The prisons used to have a board of trustees that made binding decisions and held monthly public meetings, where members received updates on inmate deaths and use-of-force incidents in city prisons.
But voters passed a 2014 referendum making the prisons system a city department, removing it from the Department of Human Services’ oversight, and giving the prisons commissioner more authority in management decisions. As part of that change, the old board of trustees was abolished in 2015 and another formed. The new board is considered advisory, and its quarterly meetings are closed to the public.
That concerns reformers.
“There is really no clarity about what the role of this board is, and whether it has any meaningful oversight, or what the mechanism of that oversight would be,” Roper said. “That needs to be something that is very clear.”
Cole’s death comes at a time when reforms aimed at easing chronic overcrowding have been working.
But his murder shows the system still has much progress to make, one reformer said.
“Overall, we are very pleased at the population reduction, the lowest since 1990, and the end of triple-celling,” the Institutional Law Project’s Love said. “Sadly, violence doesn’t seem to have also dropped proportionally.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that mayoral spokeswoman Lauren Hitt disputes attorney W. Fred Harrison Jr.’s statement that no one from the prison notified Cole’s family of the incident.