The sealing of a settlement between Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal’s office and a family member of a man who was shot dead while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car in 2014 violates the First Amendment and state public records law, according to a legal filing Thursday by The Advocate and its Acadiana television partner, KATC.
The two media organizations are asking U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna in Lafayette to vacate a different magistrate's sealing order and make public the amount that Ackal’s office agreed to pay over the death of Victor White III.
White died from a single gunshot in the parking lot of the sheriff’s Patrol Center following a drug arrest.
That order, sealing the minutes of a settlement conference that ended the federal civil rights case in March, was cited by the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association insurance pool, which provides coverage to most of the state's sheriffs, when the group refused to release the payout figure to The Advocate last month in response to a public records request.
Because of that, the court’s order is “contrary to the well-established right of the citizens of Louisiana to obtain information regarding actions of their government,” including public expenses, wrote Scott Sternberg, the attorney representing the two media organizations.
The settlement was reached in the Western District of Louisiana with Shandell Bradley, the mother of White’s son. White’s parents had joined the lawsuit, but Hanna dismissed them from it in 2016, saying they lacked standing because White's son was the legal beneficiary in a wrongful death claim.
Attorneys for Bradley lodged their opposition Thursday to unsealing the settlement figure.
The Iberia Parish coroner ruled that, although handcuffed with his arms behind him, White, 22, had shot himself in the chest. The U.S. Department of Justice and state prosecutors declined to file criminal charges, finding insufficient evidence.
But Hanna ruled last year that a civil trial could go forward, with a jury to decide whether White’s death was a suicide, an accident or the result of constitutional violations by a sheriff’s deputy, Justin Ortis.
White had refused to get out of the patrol car, crying and saying he didn’t want to go back to jail, according to statements deputies gave during a Louisiana State Police investigation.
“He said he couldn’t go to jail no more and to tell his people he loved them,” Ortis said in a statement.
Another deputy gave a similar account, saying White had said, "I’m gone” before a single gunshot rang out in the parking lot. Testing found gunshot residue on White's hands.
Ackal called the death “a tragic loss of life.”
In his October ruling, however, Hanna wrote that there were “genuine issues of fact” as to whether White committed suicide, and even if he did, whether there were constitutional violations committed in White’s detention and a search of his pockets, among other issues.
“If the initial search was illegal, which led to an illegal seizure, which led to such a fear of incarceration that White intentionally took his own life, then a reasonable jury could conclude that the illegal search and seizure was a cause-in-fact of his suicide,” Hanna ruled.
But it never got that far. Bradley, the mother of White’s son, agreed in March to settle the case.
The minutes of that settlement conference were sealed, and the release that Bradley signed makes no mention of a dollar figure. The amount also was blacked out from a copy of the check to Bradley that was provided to The Advocate by the sheriffs' insurance pool.
Though it helped prompt federal authorities to investigate allegations of civil rights violations in Ackal’s office — a probe that ultimately led 11 deputies to plead guilty — White’s death played no role in the 2016 federal criminal trial in Shreveport that ended with a jury acquitting Ackal.
Ackal, who was elected sheriff in 2008, was accused of ordering the beating of jail prisoners, condoning other abuses by deputies on the streets of New Iberia’s West End neighborhood, and orchestrating brazen cover-ups. He remains sheriff, though the city of New Iberia relaunched its own police force this month after more than a decade under a Sheriff’s Office contract.
The settlement in White’s case is among dozens reached from claims against Ackal’s office since he took office.
Settlements of those claims against Ackal, not including Bradley’s, totaled $2.96 million, according to insurance pool records.