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'Death video' guard tells Ashley Smith inquest about arrest stress

A prison guard testified Tuesday about the shock he felt at finding himself at a police station under arrest, stripped of his shoes and facing charges in the death of a teenaged inmate whose death throes he had videotaped.

At the inquest into the death of Ashley Smith, Rudy Burnett said he felt as if he had been criminally convicted, even though he believed he had done nothing wrong.

“It was not a very nice situation. I was under a lot of stress. I was very agitated,” he said.

The calm, soft-spoken Burnett, who now works at a halfway house for men, also testified about the difficulties of being a guard in the prison system.

Among other things, he said, he had witnessed serious assaults.

“It’s very traumatic,” he told coroner’s court. “Over the years, you do sort of get desensitized.”

He said he relied on family and church to help him keep a sense of himself.

Burnett, who was charged with criminal negligence and failing to provide the necessaries of life in Smith’s death, was grilled about his reluctance to give police the names of the other guards present at her death.

His lawyer had advised him to say as little as possible, coroner’s court heard.

Asked if prison guards were like a “fraternity” and he was trying to protect the others, Burnett said a fraternity conjured up an image of college hijinx.

“I really don’t consider it a fraternity,” he said. “More like a brotherhood.”

Charges against Burnett, who had been pressed into videotaping the choking death of Smith in her cell in Kitchener, Ont., five years ago, were dropped.

On Monday, jurors saw his video of the frantic last-ditch efforts to save Smith, 19, of Moncton, N.B., who had tied a ligature around her neck in her segregation cell at the Grand Valley Institution.

Burnett was a fill-in guard who had just completed a night shift and was seconds from leaving for home when an “all call” sounded, indicating an emergency. He turned and went to respond, and found a video camera thrust into his hands.

Pressed about why he didn’t intervene as Smith lay dying, he insisted he was just doing the job he was given and following orders to videotape.

In a perfect world, Burnett testified earlier, he would intervene to try to save a life but in the correctional world, it’s a different story.

“If an order is given to me and I don’t agree with it, there’s a grievance procedure,” he said at one point Tuesday.

Outside court, Smith family lawyer Julian Falconer said he had little sympathy for the guards who failed to save the teen’s life.

“Human beings are human beings; good people do bad things,” Falconer said.

“On that day, a group of guards did bad things.”

After Burnett stepped down as witness, jurors were given a copy of the correctional investigator’s report, which is highly critical of Smith’s treatment.