- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 4, 2015

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (AP) - An upstate prison guard accused of inadvertently helping two killers escape by providing them with hacksaw blades hidden in hamburger meat pleaded not guilty to felony charges on Wednesday.

Gene Palmer admitted providing inmates Richard Matt and David Sweat with tools and access to a catwalk electrical box at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora but said he never knew they planned to break out, authorities have said.

He was arrested on charges of promoting prison contraband, tampering with evidence and official misconduct and was released on $25,000 bail in June. He waived his right to have the case heard by a grand jury on Wednesday, and his attorney entered the not guilty plea for him. He remained free on bail.

Palmer, 57, is suspended from his job without pay. He sat quietly between his lawyers during Wednesday’s proceeding.

Defense attorney William Dreyer said he was negotiating with county District Attorney Andrew Wylie a possible plea bargain, WPTZ television reported. Dreyer, a former federal prosecutor who is one of Albany’s top defense attorneys, did not discuss the terms considered.

State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott said afterward she is continuing to investigate “the systemic breakdown of security processes and procedures” that enabled Matt and Sweat to get out.

“This defendant allegedly engaged in conduct over a lengthy period of time of disregarding the rules and breaking the law in order to assist two murderers escape from this maximum-security correctional facility,” she said.

Matt, who had been serving 25 years to life for the killing of his former boss, and Sweat, who had been serving life without parole in the killing of a sheriff’s deputy, left the prison on June 6. They cut their way through their cell walls, climbed down catwalks and through tunnels, cut into and out of a large steam pipe and then exited through a manhole.

They left behind a taunting note containing a crude caricature of an Asian face and the words “Have a nice day.” They had worked on the escape route for months.

After more than three weeks on the run and a massive manhunt, Matt, 49, was shot and killed in a wooded area. Sweat, 35, was wounded and caught two days later near the Canadian border.

Sweat was arraigned on felony charges of escape and promoting prison contraband for possession of hacksaw blades and appeared in the same courtroom in August. He pleaded not guilty. He’s due back in court next week.

Former prison tailor shop instructor Joyce Mitchell pleaded guilty to charges related to providing hacksaw blades and other tools to the inmates. Officials said Mitchell smuggled the contraband inside frozen hamburger meat and then Palmer gave the meat to the prisoners. Palmer’s attorney said he had no knowledge the meat contained hacksaw blades, a bit and a screwdriver.

Mitchell, 51, was sentenced in September to 2 1/3 to seven years in prison. She faces a hearing Friday on contributing to the $120,000 in restitution the state is seeking for damages to the prison.

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