EXCLUSIVE: Days pass before Georgia prison notices decomposing body of inmate

Anthony Zino tearfully addresses the court in 2000 following his conviction in the killing of his wife and daughter. Earlier this month, the 71-year-old Zino was found dead in his bunk at Smith State Prison. His body lay stuffed inside a mattress and went undiscovered for at least five days. (Barry Williams/AJC 2000 file)



Anthony Zino tearfully addresses the court in 2000 following his conviction in the killing of his wife and daughter. Earlier this month, the 71-year-old Zino was found dead in his bunk at Smith State Prison. His body lay stuffed inside a mattress and went undiscovered for at least five days. (Barry Williams/AJC 2000 file)

A Georgia prison inmate lay dead in his bunk for five days in early April — his body stuffed inside a mattress and decomposing — before anyone on the prison staff responded.

The circumstances surrounding the death of 71-year-old Anthony Joseph Zino at Smith State Prison, detailed in documents and interviews, represent one of the most dramatic examples to date of the negligence and incompetence that have gripped the Georgia Department of Corrections in recent years.

Officers at GDC facilities are required to make rounds and check on inmates at least four times during a 24-hour period. The “count” is a basic requirement of the job. But in this case, nobody bothered to look in on an aging inmate or, if they did, they apparently didn’t notice a horrifying scene, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

When the Tattnall County coroner finally was called to the prison, Zino’s body was so badly decomposed that it was leaking fluid and emitting a powerful smell, and two body bags were needed to remove it.

The failure of officers at Smith to notice a dead inmate for days reflects a “shockingly egregious failure” to carry out the basic function of prison administration, said Aaron Littman, an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Law and the faculty director of UCLA’s Prisoners’ Rights Clinic.

“Every prison, and certainly a prison like Smith State Prison, is supposed to have frequent counts where there’s an assessment made that people are where they’re supposed to be — and indeed alive,” Littman said. “The idea that you could go several days without knowing where somebody’s body physically was and what had happened to them is really astonishing and troubling.”

Smith State Prison in Glennville is classified as a close security facility. Offenders are considered escape risks, have assaultive histories or may have detainers for other serious crimes on file, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

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Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Zino’s death also represents yet another black eye for Smith State Prison, where a GBI investigation has uncovered an elaborate contraband scheme that allegedly involved the former warden, Brian Dennis Adams, and led to the murders of at least three people on the outside.

In an email to the AJC, GDC spokesperson Joan Heath acknowledged that “breakdowns in policy and procedure” appeared to have occurred in Zino’s death and that an investigation is underway to determine who was responsible.

She said the GDC believes that the death was a “mercy killing.” Arrest warrants have been issued charging Zino’s cellmate, 52-year-old Tommy Pickren, with murder and concealing a death, Heath said. The warrants indicate Zino died on April 1 and the body was discovered on April 5. Zino, who was serving a sentence of life without parole for the 1999 murders of his wife and teenage daughter in their East Cobb home, had requested that Pickren conceal the death as long as possible, she said.

Even so, she wrote, the notion that Zino may have wanted to die doesn’t lessen the fact that his deterioration was ignored and that the situation requires “accountability where appropriate.”

In a report dated April 7, the Tattnall County coroner, Bradley B. Anderson, wrote that he was summoned to the Glennville prison on the afternoon of April 5 and was led to Zino’s cell. Immediately, he said, he noticed a foul odor. Zino was in the bottom bunk with what appeared to be stuffing from a mattress “all over his body,” the coroner wrote.

“I am not certain how long Mr. Zino had been deceased but it had to be more than a couple of days,” Anderson wrote. “I placed him in two body bags because of the decomp and fluid leakage.”

Brian Dennis Adams, former Smith State Prison warden, faces charges in a GBI corruption investigation into the prison.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

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Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Contraband and murders

Dysfunction is nothing new at Smith State Prison, a close security facility than can house more than 1,500 men.

The facility has long had a reputation for violence, and it has become even more controversial in the last two years as the contraband scandal has unfolded.

Adams, the former warden, was charged in February with receiving cash payments for his role in the “Saint Laurent Squad,” a contraband smuggling ring that GBI says operated inside the prison under the direction of 26-year-old inmate Nathan Weekes.

Evidence of the ring was discovered through the GBIs investigation of the January 2021 murder of 88-year-old Bobby Carlton Kicklighter, a beloved community member who was killed in his Glennville home. The killing has been described as a hit intended for a neighbor who worked as a guard at the prison.

Weekes is charged with directing the actions of Christopher Sumlin, an associate on the outside who is accused of breaking into Kicklighter’s house and shooting him. Weekes is also alleged to have orchestrated the 2021 murders of a truck driver who made frequent deliveries to the prison and a former correctional officer who was fired for bringing drugs into the prison.

While Smith has become a particularly problematic institution, all GDC facilities have suffered as a result of dwindling personnel in the last five years.

In 2022, there were 2,648 fewer correctional officers and other sworn staff working in GDC facilities than in 2018, representing a 40% drop, GDC reports show.

Hugh Hurwitz, a prison management consultant who is a former acting director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, said prison systems across the nation are struggling to hire enough staff. Still, that can’t justify an incident like the one with Zino, he said.

“Anybody should be horrified by it, whether it’s Georgia or any other state,” he said. “Just because there’s not enough staff doesn’t make it OK.”

Anthony Zino confessed in 2000 to the murders of his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Carrie. He was serving two life sentences when he died earlier this month. His cellmate has been charged in his death, described by GDC as a "mercy killing." (Contributed)

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed


Zino entered the prison system after pleading guilty in December 2000 to the murders of his wife, Barbara, 47, and his daughter, Carrie, 14.

The AJC reported at the time that Zino, a sales trainer, was facing financial ruin and had spent the last of his daughter’s college tuition savings trying to recover. When police arrived, they reportedly found him sitting on the front steps with a Bible and a photo of his daughter.

As a Georgia prison inmate, Zino had lost touch with all but one member of his family, an older sister.

An acquaintance with whom Zino occasionally corresponded provided the AJC with a letter the inmate wrote just two weeks before his death. In the neatly written, one-page letter, Zino quoted Ecclesiastes (“To every thing there is a season …”) and hinted that events at the prison had taken a toll on him.

“Certain things have happened here at Smith and I have things I have to sort thru and deal with,” he wrote without elaborating.

The letter ended: “Good-bye. Love. Tony.”