New Orleans Jail Allowing Outside Reviews of Inmate Deaths!!
This is a big change for OPP, and a very welcome one. In fact there are two huge changes going on in our jail and both show why we have a federal consent decree in effect. So big, positive shifts in policy can take hold in our jail, if a ton of pressure comes to bear on Gusman. For decades, independent oversight into inmate fatalities has been almost nonexistent. Now, the Louisiana State Police have been invited to investigate the latest prisoner death. We can’t find a time we’ve been in Orleans Parish on any death, Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of Louisiana State Police, said earlier this week. The New Orleans Police Department, the State Police, and Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s office will be investigating this fatality jointly.
We fully intend to investigate this homicide with the support of the Louisiana State Police, said Tyler Gamble, spokesman for NOPD. I’d like to congratulate Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman for doing the right thing here by inviting the State Police into the investigation. It is only the second time since Hurricane Katrina that an OPP death has become labeled a homicide.
However, Gusman gets failing marks for past behavior and decisions concerning inmate deaths. Gusman historically has been releasing dying inmates from jail, causing their deaths to be unrecorded and uncounted by OPP. That is a pathetic attempt to deflect blame from where it belongs. Inmate death notices have been mishandled by Gusman’s office. Gusman’s office has a major conflict of interest when the jail is accused of negligence and abuse also investigates itself concerning these charges.
It seems odd that Gusman waited eight months before inviting in the State Police into the Lee case. It’s very possible that recent local media attention pressured the sheriff to ask another law enforcement agency to get involved.
The other huge sea change involves the newly elected New Orleans Coroner, the wonderful Jeffrey Rouse. He recently declared an OPP inmate death a homicide earlier in December, which doesn’t happen much at all. This unfortunate inmate, Willie Lee, a 40 year old eastern New Orleans man who suffered heart failure less than two hours after a fight at OPP, is the death being jointly investigated by the State Police, NOPD and OPP.
In June, his family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, alleging deputies used pepper spray on Lee after he complained of chest pains and that they also beat and kicked him. A spokesman for OPP said video evidence disputes the family’s claims.
In a statement, Orleans Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse said he found Lee’s injuries were the result of a fight between inmates and found no evidence that his injuries were caused by deputies. He went on to say that his decision does not confer guilt or innocence but offers the medical opinion that Lee’s death was caused by the intentional actions of others, which is the medical definition of homicide.
So it is a bright new day for the dead inmate and his/her family and friends, who will no longer find the suspicious death of their loved one in jail covered over as usual.