RACINE - After what prosecutors characterize as serious credibility issues for a key witness in a homicide case, they dropped charges against a Racine man accused of choking his cellmate to death last April.

Kurtis King was cleared of first-degree intentional homicide charges Monday in the courtroom of Circuit Court Judge Dennis Flynn. The charges stemmed from the death of King's cellmate, Robert C. Thompson.

The basis for dropping the charges came from the recent firing of two Racine Correctional Institution correction officers, Aaron Joseph and Robert Nebel, who were on duty at the time of Thompson's death. Joseph admitted he lied about checking on another inmate, Mark W. Pfeifer of Milwaukee, an hour before Pfeifer was found not breathing in his cell May 25.

"Aaron Joseph was fired and because of the allegations; we felt there were credibility problems,'' said Michael Nieskes, deputy district attorney. "We are also missing two witnesses who are on parole. One can't be found. We have no way of getting the testimony.''

Nieskes said prosecutors do not plan to re-issue charges in the case. But charges could be brought against Joseph and Nebel as early as this week.

"We're reviewing charges this week,'' he said. "There's still other information out there.''

In an independent investigation, Racine County sheriff's deputies recommended prosecutors seek obstruction and misconduct in office charges against Joseph and Nebel. A second investigation was completed by prison officials, and that review resulted in the termination of Joseph and Nebel.

King is scheduled for a parole hearing in September on charges of party to attempted felony theft from a person while armed and masked. He remains in prison at Waupun Correctional Institution.

Defense attorney Mark Richards, of Racine, said King is a victim of the careless work habits of Racine Correctional Institution guards.

According to Richards, King pounded for help for more than 30 minutes after realizing Thompson was dead. The correctional officers failed to respond. Thompson, who suffered from asthma, made a request to have his inhaler and within 15 minutes of receiving it, he strangled himself, Richards said.

One inmate told authorities he overheard King and Thompson arguing about King stealing his cellmate's medication to get high. Richards believes Thompson hanged himself.

Thompson's death was ruled asphyxiation due to strangulation.

"If the guards had answered the emergency buzzer when my client had hit it, he (Thompson) would still be alive today,'' said Richards. "I walked into court and I walked out happy. My client did not kill Robert Thompson. I'm glad the family did not have to suffer through a long court trial.''

No security changes have been implemented at RCI in the wake of the firing of the two guards, said Deputy Warden Gene Dobberstein.

"We have not, at any time in the last year, changed our policy in any way with regard to inmate possession of inhalers,'' he said. "In general population, inmates keep their inhalers.''

Although Dobberstein said the state views the correction officers' violations as a serious matter, they do not believe their actions contributed to the death of Thompson.

Courtesy of: Racine Journal Times