Charges held for court in SCI Greene homicide case

June 11, 2014
SCI-Greene inmate Raphael Spearman is led into court by corrections officers for his preliminary hearing in the January homicide of Ronald Yarbough. Spearman shared a cell with Yarbough, who died of strangulation. - Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – A Philadelphia man charged in the death of his cellmate at SCI-Greene told a corrections officer at the maximum security prison, “I choked him out,” moments after the body of Ronald Yarbough, 22, of Cresson, was found unresponsive in his cell Jan. 10.

Homicide charges against Raphael Spearman, 24, were bound over to court following a preliminary hearing Wednesday before District Judge Glenn Bates.

Corrections officer James McDonough said he and two other officers were conducting random searches when he noticed the window to the cell of Spearman and Yarbough was covered by a towel. McDonough said he asked that the towel be removed and someone inside said they were using the restroom. He again told them to remove the towel and then opened the door to the cell.

“There was an inmate (Yarbough) on the floor unresponsive. I turned to Spearman and asked what’s up with your (cellmate) and he replied, ‘I think he’s dead,’” McDonough said. “I ordered him to take a seat. I asked him again what happened and he said, ‘I choked him out,’” McDonough said.

McDonough said he was asked specifically to check on that cell since Spearman and Yarbough had just been moved in together.

Corrections officer Natalie Gordon said she spoke with Yarbough and Spearman earlier in the shift and asked if they were getting along and neither expressed a problem. Gordon said she never saw anyone other than the two enter the cell and they were locked inside when she made her rounds at 5:32 p.m.

Greene County Deputy Coroner Bill Lewis said he pronounced Yarbough dead at 8:03 p.m. Lewis said an autopsy performed Jan. 11 by forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht determined the cause of Yarbough’s death to be strangulation.

Spearman, with tattoos of “murder” and “sex” over his eyebrows, with shackles around his ankles, waist and wrists and a spit hood over his face, fidgeted repeatedly in court. He could be heard mumbling, “The defendant wants to reschedule,” “I would like this postponed,” and “I need to speak to my attorney.”

Bates allowed Spearman time to confer with his court-appointed public defender Patrick Fitch prior to the hearing. Bates informed Spearman this was not a court of record but a time to decide if there was enough evidence to bind the case over for the Greene County Court of Common Pleas.

A criminal complaint in the matter indicated Spearman had cuts on his face and hands that he claimed were inflicted by Yarbough. Spearman was treated for these injuries in the SCI-Greene medical department. It was not made clear in the complaint how Spearman received the injuries, which were minor.

Spearman was arrested on May 22, 2010, by Philadelphia police for possessing a firearm without a license. This was a violation of Spearman’s parole for previous offenses. He is currently serving a sentence of six to 16 years.

Yarbough pleaded guilty in 2012 to the aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer in Cambria County in 2010. He was serving a sentence of one to four years.

Court records indicate Yarbough underwent multiple mental health evaluations and on Sept. 13, 2012, was being held in Cambria County jail “pending an appropriate evaluation by the Cambria County Mental Health Department for placement in a mental health residence.”

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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