The family of an Orleans Parish Prison inmate who died under disputed circumstances in the spring is suing Sheriff Marlin Gusman, claiming deputies failed to intervene as the man was being assaulted by a fellow inmate at the troubled jail.
The wrongful-death lawsuit claims deputies stood by as 40-year-old inmate Willie Lee was attacked and then failed to provide him medical aid. Lee also was subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment,” the lawsuit claims, alleging he was pepper-sprayed and “beaten by prison officials.”
The lawsuit, filed last month in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, did not elaborate on the basis of those claims, and attorneys for Lee’s family have not submitted any supporting documentation.
Allen V. Davis, one of the attorneys, said the allegations are based upon witness statements that contradict the Sheriff’s Office’s account of Lee’s death.
“Obviously, we don’t want to get too far in the weeds here as far as details of the lawsuit,” Davis said in an interview. “We’ll let that flesh itself out in court. But we do believe there were witnesses there that can account for what they observed.”
Philip Stelly, Gusman’s spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit’s allegations. He said the Sheriff’s Office is still investigating Lee’s death and that the probe includes surveillance footage that authorities have not yet released. The Sheriff’s Office has previously denied that Lee was pepper-sprayed.
“We don’t have all of the elements gathered thus far to say that (the investigation) is concluded,” Stelly said. “The video is part of the ongoing investigation.”
The lawsuit raises new questions about Lee’s death, which remains unclassified by the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office after nearly three months. The Sheriff’s Office has said Lee suffered from advanced heart disease and died from cardiac failure, not from injuries related to the jail fight. But John Gagliano, the coroner’s chief investigator, said Lee’s death remains under investigation.
“Even until this day, we don’t have an official cause of death from the Coroner’s Office,” Davis said. “It seems very unusual, but based upon the history of OPP, it is not surprising.”
Lee died just after midnight on March 23, about two hours after a fight in one of the jail’s tents — temporary housing units the Sheriff’s Office has used to house portions of its inmate population since Hurricane Katrina. The Sheriff’s Office has said deputies quickly broke up the fight and took Lee to another facility.
Lee had no visible signs of injury, according to the Sheriff’s Office. A short time later, however, he began complaining of difficulty breathing and collapsed. Prison medical staff began CPR, according to the Sheriff’s Office, and Emergency Medical Services was called to the scene. Lee was taken to Interim LSU Hospital, where he died at 12:17 a.m.
The lawsuit, which was first reported by The Times-Picayune, offers a vastly different account of Lee’s death, claiming deputies who witnessed the fight did not try to stop it. In April, WWL-TV interviewed a former inmate who said it took several minutes for deputies to enter the tent to break up the fight; a responding deputy had to wait on a colleague to arrive, as required by the Sheriff’s Office’s safety protocol.
Lee “pleaded” with a commanding officer for medical attention, the lawsuit claims, and complained of “having problems with his heart.”
“The commanding officer scolded Mr. Lee,” the lawsuit states, “and another officer on the scene then proceeded to use a can of Mace against Mr. Lee. The commanding officer then placed Mr. Lee in handcuffs and dragged him away from the scene. ... No officers provided him with medical attention.”
Lee later “began shouting for help because he was having trouble breathing,” the lawsuit claims, adding that deputies began kicking him when he collapsed to the floor from a bench where deputies had been trying to handcuff him.
“Immediately prior to his death,” the lawsuit states, “Mr. Lee was beaten by prison officials ... denied any and all medical attention and inappropriately attacked with pepper spray, all of which caused his death.”
Lee, who was being held in lieu of $20,500 bail, had been jailed for about a week at the time of his death, having been booked with two counts each of unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling and criminal trespassing and one count of criminal damage to property.
He had been involved in a disturbance and then ran from his home into two nearby apartments on Dwyer Road, damaging the blinds in one of them, according to police.
Lee’s death drew several dozen protesters to the jail in late March — a demonstration that participants said was intended to highlight rampant violence at the jail. Among those in attendance were Lee’s family, who Davis said have been devastated by the unexpected death.
Orleans Parish Prison has been described as one of the most dangerous jails in the country, and the high rate of attacks there was among the many problems that prompted a federal judge last year to approve a wide-ranging consent decree requiring systemic changes at the lockup.
Advocate staff writer Danny Monteverde contributed to this report. Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.