Inmate’s violent history raises flags
EBENSBURG – Cambria County Prison officials were aware that state corrections officers had determined an inmate, convicted Monday of killing his cellmate, should be housed separately in the state prison system.
William Amos Cramer, 22, of McClellandtown, Fayette County, was found guilty of first-degree murder Monday after a three-day trial that outlined the vicious beating and strangulation death of William Sherry, 28, of Carrolltown, who had been Cramer’s cellmate at Cambria County Prison for only 12 hours before the incident.
Warden John Prebish Jr. confirmed Monday that prison officials were aware state correctional officials had labeled Cramer as “Code Z,” meaning he was supposed to be housed in a single cell within state prisons.
“There was a lot of chatter,” Prebish said, noting that several state corrections officers who had dealt with Cramer commented on his past violence after Sherry’s death.
It was an issue on many peoples’ minds before the trial, Prebish said.
Some think that, given Cramer’s record, he should not have been allowed to share a cell with other inmates while at Cambria County Prison, but Prebish noted that state codes and county codes are vastly different.
The county is required by law to have its own code system for prisoners, he said, and state prison codes do not apply to county facilities.
Also, he added, a single-cell classification could mean a number of things, including that an inmate is handicapped or a homosexual.
“It’s not just [issued] for disciplinary reasons,” he said.
Cramer’s defense team noted several times throughout the trial that their client had been housed with other inmates before Sherry and that none of them reported problems.
While at state correctional institutions in Cresson and Rockview, Cramer was classified as “Code Z.”
He had been serving a 4 1/2-to nine-year sentence for one charge of criminal attempted robbery in Fayette County and two charges of simple assault in Indiana County.
While at SCI Cresson, police said, Cramer spit in the face of two corrections officers while being escorted to his cell, then kicked the two officers and dislocated one man’s thumb.
He was charged with two counts of aggravated harassment by a prisoner, two counts of aggravated assault, three counts of simple assault and a summary harassment charge.
In mid-July 2012, Cramer was transferred to Cambria County Prison to await a hearing on those criminal charges.
State Department of Corrections Deputy Press Secretary Susan Bensinger said when state inmates are transferred to county facilities, it’s called an authorized temporary absence.
It usually means “the inmate is going to a county jail for court purposes, but that’s a generalization,” Bensinger said.
“When we do that, we also transfer a packet of information with the inmate. There’s a couple of different things in there, but it talks about how his or her behavior has been in the [Department of Corrections].”
Bensinger said it would be presumptive to say exactly what information Cambria County Prison officials would have received in that packet detailing Cramer’s past offenses. She said she could not provide specific information.
“I just know what we do for the many inmates we transfer for court, or whatever reason,” she said.
The issue also was not brought up during Cramer’s trial.
Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan was loath to discuss whether county officials ever use state corrections information when dealing with inmates or whether corrections officers knew there was a risk in housing Cramer with other inmates.
“It didn’t come out in the trial at all. I’m not going to address that,” she said, noting, like Prebish, that county prisons are not bound to follow state correctional institutions’ guidelines.
The prosecution showed that Sherry was violently beaten before Cramer bound his wrists and ankles, stuck a sock gag in his mouth and choked him with a ligature made from a torn bedsheet, strangling him for up to three minutes before he died.
Callihan said she didn’t want the first-degree murder conviction to be overshadowed by discussing an issue that wasn’t part of the trial.
It is still unclear to what degree county prison officials use Department of Corrections information, or whether it plays a role in the housing process.
Prebish was unavailable Tuesday for further comment.