Protesters rallied outside the Iberia Parish courthouse for more than two hours Wednesday afternoon calling for the end of Sheriff Louis Ackal’s term in office.
More than 100 adults and children, some standing and sitting on the courthouse lawn — others escaping the afternoon heat from within their air-conditioned vehicles across the street — prayed, chanted, registered citizens to vote and decried Ackal’s administration, which for the last few years has been overshadowed by reports of brutality, in-custody deaths and now the guilty pleas of nine former deputies and the criminal indictments of Ackal and his leading lieutenant, Gerald Savoy, on allegations of inmate abuses.
Organizer Donald Broussard said Iberia Parish residents plan to file a recall petition against Ackal once his new term begins in July if he does not comply with their demand that he resign.
“Public trust of law enforcement here in Iberia Parish has diminished and cannot be repaired until Louis Ackal is no longer in power,” Broussard said, before addressing Ackal directly.
“We are not asking that you resign. We are demanding that you resign, Louis Ackal,” Broussard said to applause.
Activists last May, led by the Rev. Raymond Brown, who participated in Wednesday’s rally along with other organizers who have long rallied against the sheriff, also called for his resignation. Ackal made a public statement to Lafayette newspaper The Daily Advertiser that it would be “a cold day in hell” before he resigned.
“I had an appointment with the devil, and he said it’s 20 degrees down there,” Broussard said.
A grand jury earlier this year indicted Ackal and Savoy on civil rights violations in an April 29, 2011, shakedown at the Iberia Parish jail where five inmates were taken to the jail’s chapel and beaten. Eight deputies have already pleaded guilty to their roles in the beatings and admitted to punishing those inmates in the chapel because there were no cameras there to capture the abuse, which deputies inflicted with batons. One of the deputies admitted to choking an inmate with the weapon while simulating oral sex.
Ackal is accused of directing the beatings, while Savoy is accused of intimidating the prisoners and failing to intervene.
Some deputies have admitted to lying under oath in the civil lawsuits that followed the proceedings, with one deputy admitting to lying to the FBI about the abuses.
A ninth deputy pleaded guilty to assaulting someone at their home at the direction of a not-yet-named but “high-ranking” Sheriff’s official who sought revenge on the belief the man attacked one of his relatives.
Organizers Wednesday plastered the faces of Ackal, Savoy and the nine deputies who have pleaded guilty on poster boards, along with graphic photos of Michael Jones, a mentally ill man who was beaten to death in the jail, and Victor White III, who died from a gunshot wound while handcuffed in the backseat of a deputy’s car.
Although state and federal investigators concluded that White shot himself, in keeping with the Sheriff’s Office version of events, protesters on Wednesday — including White’s family — maintain that he was murdered.
Lifelong resident Cornelius Joseph sat on a folding chair on the courthouse lawn during the rally and said White’s unusual death brought attention to the Sheriff’s Office and helped shine a light on allegations that had been made against Ackal’s administration.
“Although it was tragic, his death exposed a lot of wrongdoing. Now all we want the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office to understand is we’re not just here to exist. We’re here to be treated as equals,” Joseph said.
Neither Ackal nor any deputies were visibly present at the rally, although the Sheriff’s Office is housed inside the courthouse where the rally took place.
State Police spokesperson Brooks David said a few troopers were present but stationed out of sight as a precautionary measure to protect their right to peacefully protest if anyone intervened and caused trouble.
About a dozen state troopers were stationed outside the courthouse when the protest ended and about 20 protesters entered the Iberia Parish council meeting, which had begun at 6 p.m., with intent to disrupt it.
A security guard wanded those entering the council room before they were allowed to enter in a practice other regular meeting attendees said is abnormal.
“I’ve been coming to these council meetings for years, and this has never happened,” said Khadijah Anna Rashad, one of the rally’s organizers, as the guard waved the metal detector over her body.
Meanwhile, sentencing dates initially set for May for the deputies who already have pleaded guilty have been postponed without a new date while prosecutors pursue additional charges in the case, and a federal judge on Monday approved postponing Ackal and Savoy’s trial date for the same reason.
Prosecutors said in a Friday court motion seeking the delay that they plan to bring new information before a grand jury before its June adjournment.
Ackal has enlisted three attorneys to represent him: former U.S. Attorney Michael Skinner and his first cousin, retired federal judge Richard Haik Sr. — both of whom served in the same federal court in which Ackal now faces trial — and Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney Lewis O. Unglesby.
It’s unclear whether Ackal and Savoy are personally paying for their legal expenses. Ackal said no records exist responsive to The Acadiana Advocate’s public records request earlier this week that sought record of any payments made or owed by the Sheriff’s Office to the three attorneys and Randal P. McCann, who’s representing Savoy.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.