New Orleans police will not make any arrests in the case of Willie Lee, an Orleans Parish Prison inmate who died last year after a fight captured on surveillance video at the notoriously violent jail, authorities said this week.
The Police Department decision came even after Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the Orleans Parish coroner, ruled Lee’s death a homicide, determining the man died from “cardiac arrest as a result of an inmate-on-inmate physical altercation.” Prosecutors have not yet finalized their review of the case, but the NOPD’s decision is a strong indicator that no charges will be brought in Lee’s death.
Lee, 40, suffered from significant health issues long before the fight, including advanced coronary artery disease, and Rouse last year described the inmate’s heart as “a ticking time bomb.” Still, his death in March 2014 prompted fresh criticism and demonstrations over the conditions at OPP, a jail that has remained stubbornly dangerous for both inmates and deputies, despite a federally monitored plan for reforms.
Lee’s family, in a federal lawsuit, has accused sheriff’s deputies of waiting nearly 40 minutes after the fight to alert Emergency Medical Services, even as Lee “writhed in agony on the floor.”
The Times-Picayune, which reviewed surveillance footage of the incident last year, has reported that an inmate named Jeremy Cleckley can be seen throwing several punches at Lee and continuing to attack him as he lay facedown on a tabletop in one of the jail’s temporary housing tents. Cleckley, 32, later was charged in an unrelated jailhouse stabbing.
Lee complained of having trouble breathing shortly after the fight and collapsed some 13 minutes later. Authorities have said he died about two hours later at Interim LSU Hospital.
Even though Lee did not die from injuries he received in the fight, Rouse determined the physical exertion from the incident triggered his cardiac arrest.
In November, after the coroner ruled Lee’s death a homicide, the NOPD said it had opened a murder investigation into the case, an announcement that heartened inmate advocates who had called for an independent review of the case. The NOPD is far more accustomed to probing homicides than the Sheriff’s Office, whose investigative focus is limited to jailhouse incidents that rarely include murder.
“We’re immediately working it as a murder investigation,” Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman, said last year. “We’re the agency that investigates murders in the city of New Orleans.”
This week, however, Gamble said “the final agreement” had been for the NOPD to simply “review the investigation completed by (the Sheriff’s Office).” Police declined to discuss their review of the case this week. Gamble would say only that detectives did not believe there was “sufficient probable cause” to make an arrest. An internal police document tallying the city’s 2014 murders identifies the Lee case as “unfounded,” meaning it did not figure in the year-end toll.
After Rouse released the results of Lee’s autopsy last year, Sheriff Marlin Gusman wrote a letter to Col. Mike Edmonson requesting that the State Police conduct “an independent, third-party investigation” into the jailhouse death. Gusman, pledging the full cooperation of his staff, wrote that he insisted upon “maintaining public confidence in the integrity of the entire investigations process.”
State Police, however, also do not plan to conduct their own investigation from the ground up. Lt. J.B. Slaton, a State Police spokesman, said the agency’s anticipated role is to review the Sheriff’s Office investigation. “We have all the information,” Slaton said.
Sheriff’s Office officials suggested they already knew the outcome of the State Police review. Philip Stelly, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said Wednesday that a “review by the (State Police) and the NOPD did not result in any additional information or evidence, nor were any different conclusions drawn.”
The Sheriff’s Office declined to release any reports relating to Lee’s death — including the video footage — because the file remains under review by the District Attorney’s Office.
“The district attorney has the final say as to whether any criminal charges would result from this incident,” Stelly said. “That significant determination has not been made as of this date.”
Norris Henderson, an outspoken inmate advocate and executive director of the group Voice of the Ex-Offender, questioned why authorities haven’t pursued some kind of charge against Cleckley, even if there isn’t enough evidence for a murder or manslaughter prosecution because of questions over who started the fight.
“They’ve been so lax for years with nobody taking the responsibility to look at these (jailhouse) cases that the status quo is that something happens and that’s it,” Henderson said. “They’re taking this nonchalant approach about these things, and I just can’t figure out why.”
The NOPD’s decision comes just a few months before Gusman’s attorneys are scheduled to appear in federal court for a civil trial on the lawsuit brought by Lee’s family. That proceeding is tentatively set to begin in August before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk — who also is overseeing the federal consent decree over OPP. A settlement conference in the Lee case was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
Logan Greenberg, an attorney for Lee’s family, said he was not surprised by the lack of an arrest in the case. But that decision does not absolve the Sheriff’s Office of liability, he added.
“Our position is and has always been that if Mr. Lee had been given proper emergency medical care, we might be talking to him right now and not talking about him,” Greenberg said. “And while that may not mean that someone deserves to be charged with a crime because of it, it is no less a preventable tragedy, and we will all continue to work tirelessly to see to it that the Sheriff’s Office does what they can to help this family deal with their loss.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.