The family of Willie Lee, an inmate who died last year after a fight in Orleans Parish Prison, has filed a new lawsuit against Sheriff Marlin Gusman, claiming deputies waited nearly 40 minutes before alerting Emergency Medical Services of Lee’s injuries, even as he “writhed in agony on the floor.”
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court, resembles similar litigation Lee’s family lodged in Orleans Parish Civil District Court last year. But the eight-page federal claim includes new allegations based on video footage and other evidence the Sheriff’s Office released during the state court proceedings, said Logan Greenberg, an attorney for Lee’s mother and daughter.
“This allows us to make certain claims that we couldn’t make in state court,” Greenberg said. He called the jailhouse surveillance footage “very disturbing.”
“Unfortunately,” he added, “I represent a family who had a loved one die when, from all the evidence I’m looking at, it was extremely preventable.”
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Even though inmate violence has been a common occurrence at the jail, Lee’s death generated public outrage and protests over the allegedly lax supervision that has persisted at OPP despite court-ordered reforms.
Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the parish coroner, eventually classified the death as a homicide, triggering a police investigation that remains unresolved.
Lee, 40, died March 23 after a fight with a fellow inmate in one of the jail’s temporary housing tents, structures used in the years after Hurricane Katrina damaged many of OPP’s buildings.
Lee began complaining about having difficulty breathing and collapsed 13 minutes after the fight, according to the Sheriff’s Office. He died about two hours later.
The authorities noted Lee had suffered from advanced coronary artery disease. But Rouse in November attributed Lee’s death to the physical exertion of the fight, citing “cardiac arrest as a result of an inmate-on-inmate physical altercation” as the reason he died.
“His heart was a ticking time bomb,” the coroner said at the time, “but eventually, it was the actions of the other person that caused it to go off.”
Rouse has said he doesn’t believe any deputies inflicted Lee’s fatal injuries. His findings, he said, were based in part on surveillance video of the fight, which involved another inmate.
The new lawsuit describes Lee’s death as “tragically preventable,” alleging he pleaded for medical attention and collapsed to the floor in the presence of sheriff’s deputies. When the fight began, the lawsuit says, “at least one officer and possibly more were in a position to stop it but instead ignored it.”
As the fight continued, “another officer arrived and also chose to ignore it,” the lawsuit claims.
According to the lawsuit, Lee pleaded with a commanding officer for medical attention, saying he had problems with his heart. The lawsuit says deputies failed to render aid after another inmate “brutally attacked” Lee.
“The commanding officer scolded Mr. Lee, and another officer on the scene maced him,” the lawsuit alleges. “The commanding officer then placed Mr. Lee in handcuffs and dragged him away from the scene.”
Lee collapsed about 10:38 p.m. March 23 feet away from several deputies, some of whom “focused on paperwork,” the lawsuit says.
“Mr. Lee writhed in agony on the floor while officers and jail personnel did nothing,” the lawsuit claims. “It was almost 40 minutes before any employee or agent of Sheriff Gusman contacted Emergency Medical Services. By that time, it was too late, and Mr. Lee subsequently succumbed to his injuries.”
Lee was pronounced dead at 12:17 a.m. March 24 at Interim LSU Hospital.
The lawsuit echoes some of the concerns voiced by inmate advocates and a team of experts who were appointed by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk to oversee reforms at OPP outlined in a consent decree with the Justice Department. Those experts, known as monitors, have frequently noted that the jail remains dangerously understaffed and that medical care has been sorely lacking.
The lawsuit claims the sheriff and his staff must have known of the “continuing serious deficiencies in the policies, practices and procedures at the jail related to medical treatment of prisoners.” It alleges Lee was subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” in the jail.
Saying it was vital for his office to be transparent, the sheriff last year requested that outside law enforcement agencies investigate Lee’s death.
Tyler Gamble, a New Orleans Police Department spokesman, said Tuesday that no arrests have been made in the death.
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