The Justice Department said Tuesday criminal charges will not be brought against Iberia Parish sheriff’s deputies in the 2014 death of Victor White III, whose shooting while handcuffed was ruled a suicide and prompted civil rights protests.
“After a careful and thorough review of the evidence, federal prosecutors and FBI agents have determined that the evidence here is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any officer fired a weapon at Mr. White,” U.S. Attorney Stephanie Finley said in a news release.
White was 22 years old when he was arrested on counts of cocaine and marijuana possession late at night on March 2, 2014. With his hands cuffed behind his back, White was brought to the sheriff’s control center in New Iberia and died after he suffered a single shot to his chest. An autopsy by Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. Carl Ditch ruled a self-inflicted gun shot killed White, with the .25-caliber bullet entering below his right nipple and exiting his left armpit.
Finley said federal officials met with White’s family in Lafayette on Tuesday to inform them of the findings.
Carol Powell Lexing, an attorney for the Whites, said the family is disappointed with the investigation’s results. She said the White family will push forward with the federal lawsuit filed in March against Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal and sheriff’s Cpl. Justin Ortis. The lawsuit, filed by White’s father and by Shandell Marie Bradley on behalf of her and White’s child, is ongoing.
“We’ll proceed with the civil case,” Powell Lexing said. “We know we’re going to get different results than the federal investigation.”
Finley said Tuesday that ballistics tests matched the gun found in the rear seat of the police cruiser with the spent shell casing found in the back seat. Also, federal investigators discovered that White had a .25-caliber handgun earlier that night and that when the gun was fired, it was very close to White’s body, Finley said.
Tests also showed White had gunshot residue on both of his hands, Finley said, and video of White after he was arrested shows him “reaching around to his front pants pocket area while handcuffed behind his back.
“Both the state coroner (Ditch) and independent medical experts concluded that Mr. White fired the shot while handcuffed,” Finley said.
Sheriff Ackal said Tuesday the Justice Department’s announcement came after monthslong, independent investigations by State Police and the FBI. Ackal said the findings cleared the two deputies who were involved — Cpl. Ortis and Lt. Jeffery Schmidt.
Ackal said that after the death, he called State Police for an independent investigation.
“I stand by my actions from the beginning of this tragedy, that I followed proper procedure to ensure a just outcome,” Ackal said in a news release. “I was also prepared to act accordingly regardless of the findings of the investigations.”
Ackal said he passed on his “condolences to the White family for their tragic loss; however, I condemn the actions of those who attempted to make this tragic event a political issue.”
White’s father, the Rev. Victor White Sr., of Alexandria, and the rest of the family have never accepted the official explanation of how White died. Protesters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, have questioned how White possessed a handgun after he was searched by deputies, and how he managed to reach around and shoot himself in the chest.
“I’ve been fighting civil rights cases for three decades, and I have never heard a story more incredulous than this story,” Sharpton said in September 2014 at a Baton Rouge rally.
“This is an insult to the people of this state,” Sharpton said at that rally.
Powell Lexing, the White family attorney from Monroe, filed the lawsuit in March alleging Ortis and the Sheriff’s Office were responsible in the wrongful death of White. Also litigating the case is Florida civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has filed suits in other racially tinged deaths involving police.