Family of slain prison guard raps state response

·3 min read

The family of slain corrections officer Joseph B. Gomm said Thursday that they feel abandoned by state officials as a legislative measure to appropriate $3 million to his estate has stalled.

Gomm, who was killed nearly three years ago by an inmate at the Stillwater prison, was the subject of a special victim's compensation measure first introduced at the Capitol in 2019.

"I feel like Joe's been pushed under the rug," said his sister, Audrey Cone, of St. Francis. "No one wants to take responsibility."

The family said the failed appropriation is just one of the ways in which the official response to their brother's death has failed: They say their suggestion that corrections officers get stab vests to protect against future attacks has not been heeded; that they were not allowed to give victim impact statements at the sentencing of the man who killed Gomm; and that an official investigation of Gomm's death showed several critical errors that no one has apologized for.

Cone, along with Gomm's sister Angela Wood and each of their husbands, held a news conference at the Washington County Courthouse with attorney Mike Padden to urge legislative leaders to move ahead.

"These people are frustrated," Padden said, adding that the family is considering a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Department of Corrections if the legislative measure doesn't pass. The window to file that lawsuit closes July 18 — the third anniversary of Gomm's death — due to statute of limitations rules. Padden didn't say how much money such a lawsuit would seek.

Gomm was guarding inmates in a workshop area on July 18, 2018 when inmate Edward Muhammad Johnson assaulted him with two knives and a hammer. Gomm was unarmed except for pepper spray and a radio, and due to a staffing shortage was working alone when he would typically have had a second officer with him.

Gomm, 45, of Blaine, was the first Minnesota prison guard killed in the line of duty.

Johnson, who was serving time for another murder at the time of Gomm's death, pleaded guilty in October to first-degree murder and was immediately given the mandatory sentence of life in prison.

Gomm's death prompted a monthlong lockdown of the Stillwater prison — often referred to as the state's "flagship institution" — and led three officers to resign. At least 10 also took a leave of absence. Corrections officers banded together to demand additional security cameras and increased staffing in the prison's vocational workshops like the one where Gomm was killed.

Gomm's mother received a $60,000 workers' compensation payment, along with state and federal line-of-duty death benefit payments totaling about $516,000, according to Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sarah Fitzgerald.

"The murder of Officer Joe Gomm remains the darkest day in the history of the Minnesota Department of Corrections," Fitzgerald said in an e-mail statement. "Joe Gomm is the first and only officer to be killed in the line of duty in the agency's history."

Fitzgerald's statement added that the $3 million appropriation measure would set a precedent "that the legislature has to consider closely."

"Giving one family a direct appropriation might seem unfair to others who did not receive direct appropriations — even other corrections officers, like Officer Parise, who died in the line of duty," the statement read, referring to Joseph Parise, who died of a heart attack in 2018 after responding to a fight at the Oak Park Heights prison.

State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary's Point, first introduced the Gomm family appropriation measure in the state senate. On Thursday, she said she'll continue to push for its passage.

"My heart is with the Gomm family, and I am still working to help them receive fair compensation for their loss," Housley said. "I am encouraging my colleagues to consider their request and support the family's right to seek justice through any means available."

Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329