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Lawsuit over death of Victor White III delayed amid racism allegations

12th February 2018   ·   0 Comments

A federal trial involving a Black man who was fatally shot while handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police car nearly four years ago has been delayed amid new allegations that the sheriff of Iberia Parish used racial slurs and instructed deputies how to cover up “illegal actions” against arrested suspects.

The Associate Press reported that U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna agreed Jan. 30 to postpone the trial involving a lawsuit filed by relatives of Victor White III. The 22-year-old man had his hands cuffed behind his back when he died in the rear of an Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office patrol car in March 2014.

In a Jan. 29 court filing, attorneys representing White’s family said two former employees of the sheriff’s office recently contacted them with “highly critical and important information” about Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal.

Judge Hanna said Jan. 31 that he would delay the trial to give Ackal’s lawyer time to question the witnesses. The magistrate said in a court filing that their anticipated testimony is important and could unfairly undermine the family’s case if jurors don’t hear it.

The Associated Press reported that Laurie Segura, who worked as Sheriff Ackal’s administrative assistant, told the family’s attorneys that she heard the sheriff give coded instructions for writing reports to justify beatings of detainees. Segura also said Ackal referred to Black people as “gorillas” and another racial slur, the lawyers said.

Fred Schroeder, a lawyer for Ackal and for a deputy who also is a defendant in the lawsuit, didn’t respond to an email from The Associated Press seeking comment on Jan. 31. Ackal didn’t immediately respond to a phone message left with his office, but Major Wendell Raborn said the sheriff’s office doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The other new witness, former Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Deputy Candace Rayburn, contacted White’s father on Jan. 24 and said she “knew of the practice of beating up detainees before they were brought in for booking,” the family’s attorneys wrote.

“She further stated she had heard officers talking about the Victor White III incident,” they added, without elaborating.

In November 2016, a federal jury acquitted Ackal of federal civil rights charges that accused him of ordering the beatings of prisoners and orchestrating a brazen cover-up. Ten deputies pleaded guilty in the case. Before trial, U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors accused Ackal of making anti-Semitic threats that he apparently directed at one of the prosecutors assigned to the case.

Neither Segura nor Rayburn testified at Ackal’s 2016 trial.

The Justice Department and state prosecutors ruled out any criminal charges in White’s death.

Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl Ditch ruled in 2014 that the New Iberia man shot himself in the chest following his drug-related arrest by one of Ackal’s deputies.

A forensic pathologist concluded it was possible for the gunshot to be self-inflicted even though Victor White’s hands were handcuffed behind his back, according to the Iberia Parish District Attorney’s office.

Judge Hanna, however, ruled in October that a jury for the civil case must decide whether White’s death was a suicide, accident or “at the hand of a sheriff’s deputy.” Hanna said the manner of White’s death hasn’t been “conclusively established.”

Shandell Marie Bradley, the mother of White’s daughter, sued the sheriff and Deputy Justin Ortis in 2015. Ortis had patted down White and found marijuana in a pants pocket but didn’t confiscate a gun before he handcuffed him.

Segura and Rayburn both sued Ackal over their employment at the sheriff’s office. Segura’s lawsuit accused one of Ackal’s top deputies of sexual harassment and claimed the sheriff retaliated against her for reporting the allegations. Rayburn sued the sheriff in 2016 over her firing, accusing Ackal of retaliating against her after she expressed support for Segura’s harassment complaint.

Since White’s death, there have been more questions than answers about what actually happened.

In a press release, the Louisiana State Police offered the following account of what happened to White in the 2014 shooting:

“[Victor White III] was taken into custody, handcuffed behind his back, and transported to the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office for processing. Once at the Sheriff’s Office, White became uncooperative and refused to exit the deputy’s patrol vehicle. As the deputy requested assistance from other deputies, White produced a handgun and fired one round striking himself in the back.”

After the Louisiana State Police cleared the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office of wrongdoing, Sheriff Louis Ackal released a statement that said “In my opinion, this was a tragic loss of life, and it is difficult to understand why it happened.” Ackal extended “deepest sympathy” to the White family.

The Rev. Victor White II told The New York Times that he was not surprised by what he believes happened to his son. “Not at all,” he said. “Because I knew the type of person Louis Ackal was.”

The Iberia Parish coroner’s report appears to contradict the Louisiana State Police report of what happened.

According to the full final report of the Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl M, Ditch, which was released nearly six months after White’s death, White was shot in the front, not the back. The bullet entered his right chest and exited under his left armpit. White was left-handed, according to family members. According to the report, the forensic pathologist found gunshot residue in the wound, but not the sort of stippling that a close-range shot can sometimes produce. He also found abrasions on White’s face.

And yet, despite the contradictions – and even though White’s hands were never tested for gunpowder residue – the Iberia Parish coroner still supported the central contention of the initial police statement issued back in March 2014. Dr. Carl Ditch ruled that White shot himself, and declared his death a suicide.

After the fatal shooting, White’s family and their attorney, Benjamin Crump, called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an independent investigation into their son’s death. “They just want the truth. They want the answers,” Crump said at a news conference with White’s parents.

“We have a terrible recent trend that is occurring across state lines that finds these ‘Houdini handcuff’ suicides while they are in the custody of police that defies all logic, all common sense,” Crump said during his call for an independent investigation by the DOJ. “You can’t make me understand how my son took his left hand, when he was handcuffed behind the back, and shot himself,” the Rev. Victor White II said. “I don’t believe a thing they’re saying at this point.”

This article originally published in the February 12, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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