The death of a man who collapsed after a fight with a fellow inmate at Orleans Parish Prison has been ruled a homicide by Coroner Jeffrey Rouse, a decision that appears to signal a sharp departure in philosophy from his predecessor, Frank Minyard.
In a prepared statement Thursday, Rouse said Willie Lee, 40, “suffered a cardiac arrest as a result of an inmate-on-inmate physical altercation.”
He also classified as a homicide the death of a man who died from pneumonia days after he was beaten up on Bourbon Street.
Lee died on March 23, sparking protests over allegedly lax supervision at the city’s jail.
His death was the 25th at the prison since 2009, according to the group Orleans Parish Prison Reform.
The prison is currently under a federal consent decree — a court-mandated reform plan — because of a history of violence among inmates, among other factors.
Shortly after Lee’s death, the Sheriff’s Office released a statement saying Lee had complained about difficulty breathing and collapsed 13 minutes after the fight. He died about two hours later.
Phillip Stelly, a spokesman for the sheriff, said at the time that a preliminary autopsy showed Lee died from extensive heart disease and not the altercation.
Rouse backed up part of that account Thursday. He acknowledged that Lee had advanced coronary artery disease but said it was the physical exertion from the fight that caused him to die.
“His heart was a ticking time bomb, but eventually, it was the actions of the other person that caused it to go off,” he said.
The inmate Lee was fighting was identified as 31-year-old Jeremy Cleckley by nola.com.
Rouse said he found that none of the bruising and other minor physical injuries sustained from the fight caused the death.
He called his access to surveillance video of the fight, as well as witness statements and other evidence, “absolutely crucial” in coming to his determination.
According to Rouse, the way Lee collapsed — visible on the surveillance video — was indicative of a heart condition.
Rouse also said he did not believe any of the injuries that caused Lee’s death were inflicted by deputies at the jail.
Lee was arrested two weeks prior to his death on two counts of unauthorized entry of an inhabited dwelling, two counts of criminal trespassing and one count of criminal damage to property.
According to a police report, he was involved in a disturbance and then ran from his home and entered two nearby apartments on Dwyer Road, damaging the blinds in one of them.
He was being held on $20,500 bail.
Lee’s family lashed out at the Sheriff’s Office in the aftermath of his death, claiming that it was several days after the fact before the family was informed of the incident.
Cleckley was never booked for the fight, and the Sheriff’s Office has never publicly released any additional details about its investigation.
In a statement sent Thursday evening, Stelly said a report on the incident “will be finalized and submitted to the District Attorney’s Office for consideration with all other documents and evidence previously submitted.”
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, said his office had yet to receive a report from the Sheriff’s Office or a request to consult on the incident.
He declined to answer a question about how the homicide designation could affect possible charges against the inmate.
Rouse also classified as a homicide the death of 58-year-old Paul Eckles, who died Sept. 17 at his home in the 2600 block of Baronne Street.
Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for the Police Department, said Eckles was in a fight in the doorway of a bar in the 300 block of Bourbon Street two days before he died.
According to Rouse, Eckles died of pneumonia because his jaw was badly broken and he was unable to clear secretions from his throat.
Gamble said he wasn’t sure whether anyone had been booked in the Bourbon Street assault. He said the incident initially was investigated by State Police.
Rouse announced a set of new policies last week that are intended to provide more transparency around investigations of deaths at the jail.
He stressed in his statement Thursday that the homicide classifications didn’t imply criminal intent but simply were a medical determination that the actions of others caused the deaths of Lee and Eckles.
As a coroner, he can choose from five different classifications of death: homicide, accidental, suicide, undetermined or natural.
Rouse added that the responsibility of the coroner is to go beyond an autopsy when deciding cause of death, taking into consideration video surveillance, witness statements and other evidence.
That approach is in marked contrast with his former boss, Minyard, who attracted criticism for punting on the cause of death in high-profile cases.
The most prominent instance was the death of Henry Glover, who was shot by New Orleans police Officer David Warren in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Despite the fact that Warren eventually admitted shooting Glover, Minyard declined to use witness testimony or other court records in his classification.
Glover’s death is still considered “undetermined.”