On the eve of a trial, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman agreed this week to pay $1.75 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family of William Goetzee, a U.S. Coast Guard commander who committed suicide at Orleans Parish Prison almost five years ago by swallowing toilet paper — a high-profile death that critics said epitomized the dysfunction of the now-closed jail.
The attorneys for Goetzee’s siblings heralded the settlement as “unprecedented” and, in a statement, said they had “proved that the sheriff condoned an unconstitutional practice of failing to supervise suicidal inmates, in violation of the jail’s written policies and the United States Constitution.”
“We’re pleased that Sheriff Gusman, through this settlement, has finally acknowledged that William Goetzee’s death was not simply the fault of one rogue deputy, but the result of an entrenched problem in the jail,” well-known New York lawyer Barry Scheck said in a news release.
An attorney for Gusman, James Williams, declined to confirm the terms of the settlement, saying they had not yet been finalized.
“We’ve sort of reached an agreement in principle,” Williams said in a phone interview late Friday. “I think the plaintiffs were a bit hasty in doing a press release. I think they were premature in discussing the settlement.”
Goetzee’s case was among a long list of in-custody deaths at the now-shuttered OPP — a jail that became so troubled a federal judge in 2013 ordered sweeping reforms at the lockup. Many of those improvements have not yet been implemented at the newly opened Orleans Justice Center, where just last week another inmate committed suicide in a shower.
At the time of his August 2011 death, Goetzee was being held on the jail’s mental health tier after making it clear he intended to take his own life. He had been detained “on federal charges relating to a suicide attempt,” the family’s attorneys said, and was supposed to be under constant supervision.
William Thompson, the deputy assigned to watch Goetzee, left his post for a period of hours, during which the inmate asphyxiated himself by ingesting toilet paper. Thompson later pleaded guilty to malfeasance in office.
Scheck, in the news release, said the plaintiffs’ attorneys hope the settlement “will persuade the sheriff to take responsibility for the unconstitutional practices — in particular, the failure to properly supervise suicidal inmates — that continue to put inmates’ lives at risk in the jail today.”
But Williams, the sheriff’s attorney, stressed that the Sheriff’s Office had not acknowledged wrongdoing in settling the case. He said the decision to settle, rather than go through a lengthy trial scheduled to begin Monday, boiled down “at the end of the day to a financial decision.”
Gusman himself had been expected to testify in the proceedings.
“The Sheriff’s Office vigorously disputes the merits of the case,” Williams said. “I think the facts of the case were extraordinarily defensible, but we were looking at about a month of actual trial time, if not more.”
Williams said the plaintiffs at trial would have had to prove not only that other suicides had occurred on Gusman’s watch but also that “the sheriff had a custom of allowing deputies to leave their post” without authorization.
Goetzee “committed suicide in a way that no one, including the experts for the plaintiffs, had ever heard of: someone ingesting small amounts of toilet paper over an extended period of time,” Williams added.
But the plaintiffs’ attorneys, who included Mary Howell, of New Orleans, and Nancy Gertner, of Boston, said they had discovered through witnesses and jail records that “around the time of Mr. Goetzee’s death and before, suicidal inmates were repeatedly left unwatched with the knowledge of the jail’s doctors, security supervisors and, at times, the sheriff himself.”
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