Vance Grace served a total of 34 years in Hawaii prisons and jails, and in the summer of 2020 he was looking forward to getting out in a month or so. He wanted to travel to the mainland after his release to watch the retirement ceremony for his son, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Instead, Grace tested positive for Covid-19, and was locked in a quarantine cell with two other prisoners at the Oahu Community Correctional Center. And that turned out to be his final stop in the state correctional system.

On Aug. 31, 2020, Grace was beaten in his cell, an assault that allegedly involved another inmate stomping on his head. Staff at the jail who spoke on condition that they not be identified reported a delayed, confused response to the attack, with corrections officers unable to immediately intervene because the key to the cell did not work properly.

One of the inmates finally used a fail-safe mechanism inside the cell to help staff to open the door, which allowed corrections officers to remove two of the prisoners, according to staff. But the door then locked again, leaving the injured Grace inside, and he remained there until a locksmith could be summoned to open the door to get him help, staff said.

Vance Grace, left, was killed in the Oahu Correctional Facility by another inmate while he was sick with Covid-19. His son, Nelson Coburn, right, is suing the state over the incident. Submitted

Grace, 62, died from the injuries he suffered in the attack, which included neck compression and blunt force head trauma according to his autopsy. His death was ruled a homicide, and Grace’s son Nelson Coburn — the former Marine Corps first sergeant — is now suing the state and the Department of Public Safety on behalf of Grace’s estate.

The lawsuit alleges state officials “knowingly placed Mr. Grace in jeopardy of serious injury and death, and failed to follow basic common sense correctional practices that would have prevented Mr. Grace’s brutal murder at the hands of a violent cellmate.”

Coburn says the lawsuit isn’t about money. It is about the conditions inside Hawaii’s largest jail.

“Don’t get me wrong, they did whatever they did to be there, but faulty locks? Come on, really?” he said. “You’ve got to provide some level of safety if you’re going to hold people in prison, and from my understanding, this is a common thing in most jails in Hawaii.”

In fact, a report on conditions at the Hawaii Community Correctional Center in Hilo last month flagged the issue of failed locks as a safety hazard there as well.

Grace’s records show he suffered from schizophrenia, and most of the time he spent in prison was for theft and drug offenses. But he had some odd incidents in his criminal past.

He first attracted media attention in 1987 when he was serving a prison term for auto theft, and scaled a fence at OCCC and escaped. He then called television stations, a radio station and then-state Sen. Clayton Hee to explain why, and to turn himself in.

Hee told reporters Grace had been cooperating with the state Attorney General’s Office in an investigation into drug trafficking by staff at the jail, a claim that was confirmed by both then-Attorney General Warren Price and then-Acting Director of Corrections Harold Falk.

Hee told reporters Grace, who was 29 at the time, had identified corrections officers who were involved, and then fled from the jail “because he was afraid for his life.” The drugs being supplied to inmates inside included marijuana, cocaine and heroin, Hee told reporters at the time.

Grace was moved to a secret location for protection for a time, but the media reports make no mention of anyone ever being charged in connection with that investigation.

He was arrested repeatedly in the years that followed, including one case in 2007 when he was caught with six stolen backhoes in the backyard of his Waianae home.

Police accused Grace of stealing the construction equipment from local construction sites, and then offering to return the backhoes if the owners would pay him $5,000, according to newspaper accounts at the time.

At the time of his death Grace was once again being held at OCCC, this time for a parole violation and a new charge of promoting prison contraband after he was allegedly caught with methamphetamine inside the jail in 2018.

Oahu Community Corrections Center OCCC.
Oahu Community Correctional Center is the state’s largest jail. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Coburn, 42, has only vague memories as a small child of his father picking him up, and another of meeting him through the glass partition at a correctional facility when Coburn was about 6 or 7 years old.

When Coburn was in his 30s he used a commercial DNA testing service to establish a link between himself and Grace’s family, finally confirming that Grace was indeed his father. Coburn and Grace began trying to build a relationship based on visits and phone calls, and Grace was “on his way to recovery,” Coburn said.

Grace’s father and brothers worked construction, and Grace had plans to start his own business building decorative-type fish ponds after he was released.

“At the end of the day, I could sit there and be bitter, but we’re all human beings, we’re all going to make our decisions in life and we’ve all got to pay for them. But the guy did 34 years in prison, I think he paid for most of the debt that society expected him to pay for those crimes,” Coburn said.

The state was trying to reduce the jail population in the spring of 2020 to limit the spread of the coronavirus inside, and Grace had asked Coburn to post his bail. But Coburn decided to wait, reasoning that Grace would be released shortly anyway. Grace was killed about two weeks later.

“He had gotten Covid, or thought that he had, so they put him in that cell, the three of them,” Coburn said. “But had they handled Covid correctly, he may not even have ever been in that cell.”

As he has learned some of the details of his father’s story — three ill inmates confined together in a single cell, followed by violence and Grace’s death — Coburn came to believe the state allowed conditions to deteriorate at OCCC “because they don’t give a shit about them.”

“They did the crime, but if you’re going to make them do the time, then provide them with an an environment that they can do the time, and move on with their lives,” he said.

Ezequiel Zayas, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Vance Grace at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in 2020
Ezequiel Zayas 

A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s office declined comment on Coburn’s lawsuit Friday, saying the office had not yet been formally served with the complaint.

Vance’s alleged killer, 29-year-old Ezequiel Zayas, has been indicted on a first-degree murder charge, but was deemed to be so severely mentally ill that he is not competent to stand trial. He was held at Hawaii State Hospital for a time, and last week was temporarily moved back to OCCC.

At a hearing on Feb. 1 to determine if he had recovered enough to proceed with the case, Zayas interrupted the proceedings to demand to know who was his public defender.

“I’m asking who is my public defender, because I need to go home,” he told Circuit Court Judge Christine Kuriyama. “I have children.”

The video connection to the state hospital went blank midway through the hearing, and staff at the hospital told Kuriyama that Zayas was feeling ill, and did not want to continue to participate.

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