SHREVEPORT – A federal jury on Friday cleared Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal of allegations he turned a blind eye to systemic civil-rights abuses committed by several deputies, including jailhouse beatings and a practice in which narcotics agents preyed on New Iberia's black community for sport.
After four hours of deliberations, the jury acquitted Ackal of all charges, including conspiracy and deprivation of civil rights. The panel returned the not-guilty verdict at 4:30 p.m., dealing a stunning rebuke to the U.S. Justice Department, which led a wide-ranging probe into misconduct dating to Ackal's first months in office in 2008.
"I'm not a crook and don't intend to be one," Ackal said after walking out of the courthouse, flanked by his attorney and relatives. "The prosecutors had the bad guys but they wanted my scalp."
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The sheriff, who won re-election last year to a third term, described the allegations against him as a smear campaign, adding that the deputies who testified against him had "betrayed my trust and a lot of people depending on them for their safety."
"One of the things that this case did was help eliminate rogues form the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office who went beyond the law and beat on innocent people and planted drugs on innocent people," the sheriff told reporters outside the downtown courthouse here. "That is totally opposite of what I am and what I've been, and i'm going to go back to New Iberia and make sure my house is very clean."
The shocking allegations of abuse within the department, stretching back nearly eight years to the beginning of Ackal's first term, went largely uncontested during the five-day trial.
The sheriff's defense attorney, John McLindon, argued throughout that Ackal remained in the dark about the apparently routine beatings carried out by his office's narcotics task force and the brutal treatment of inmates.
Asked after the verdict how he'd remained oblivious to the misconduct in his department, Ackal said the deputies and their supervisor acted in secret and covered up their misdeeds. The sheriff said he would have fired and arrested the deputies, whom he repeatedly referred to as "rogues," had he known about the beatings and abuses of prisoners.
Ackal, who did not take the stand, said deputies who acted in an unlawful manner are "going to get what they deserve" but said he's concerned the federal government will give some only brief jail sentences as a result of their testimony against him.
Supporters hailed the verdict as vindication for a sheriff who was stripped of his gun as he awaited trial. Ackal never considered stepping down, they said.
"He is a lawman first and foremost," said Lloyd Nicholson, a friend who has known Ackal since the first grade and who led the sheriff's re-election campaign last year.
"As a manager, you rely on the people that you put in place to keep you informed," Nicholson said. "He will have to start all over again re-directing, getting the right people in office, and I hope and think he’ll be a little bit better at scrutinizing them this time and not just relying on people."
Ackal is returning to a fractured community that has followed this week's testimony in horror. Many residents of the West End, New Iberia's historically black community, said they feel the sheriff is unfit to serve. "It's going to be a hard road back," said Marlon Lewis, a barber running for City Council.
New Iberia Mayor Hilda Curry acknowledged that the Ackal proceedings "placed a shadow over the city" and "definitely caused an issue with perception." But she insisted there are "many excellent deputies who work for the Sheriff’s Office."
"I think, as a community, everybody just has to pull together," she said.
Ten of Ackal's deputies pleaded guilty in the case, and several of them took the witness stand this week and described a culture of impunity in which the sheriff not only condoned but encouraged the mistreatment of suspects and inmates. The proceedings were transferred to U.S. District Court in Shreveport due to pervasive pre-trial publicity.
Jurors heard shocking stories of inmates being assaulted for no reason, allegedly once in Ackal's presence. The testimony focused in large part on the sheriff's narcotics unit, described more than once as Ackal's "baby."
Deputies said they were encouraged to "tune up" suspects who fled arrest, and they acknowledged beating and arresting one man who had punched a supervisor at a bar. In one case, which, they said, an inmate inmate was forced to simulate oral sex on a baton.
Federal prosecutors sought to portray Ackal as a ruthless leader who instilled his own version of the law over his first two terms in office. During closing arguments, federal prosecutor Mark Blumberg described the number of people beaten by narcotics officers during Ackal's tenure as "staggering," estimating it totaled in the hundreds of victims. It amounted to a "widespread conspiracy to use more force than necessary," Blumberg said.
The kind of violence could not have "remained hidden, in secret, from the most powerful law enforcement officer in the parish," the prosecutor added.
At one point, talking about a April 2011 contraband sweep at the jail in which inmates were beaten with metal batons, Blumberg said, "The only explanation that makes sense of that eruption of violence would be Ackal."
Deputies testified that Ackal said "take care of that for me, baby," and then took inmates inside the jail's chapel, where there were no cameras to record the assault.
Defense attorney John McLindon, however, described the civil-rights abuses as the work of a rogue narcotics unit whose members agreed to testify against their boss under the terms of plea agreements. McLindon emphasized to jurors that the deputies who testified against his client had taken deals after lying before grand juries or under oath in legal depositions. When interviewed by FBI agents, the investigators made clear they wanted to go after "bigger fish" and deputies provided that information, he said.
"Just like the National Enquirer, these guys got to sell that story to get paid," said McLindon. He emphasized that nobody testified that Ackal "laid a finger on anyone," and said there were no records the sheriff could have looked at that detailed the beatings, either out in the community or in the jail.
Before closing arguments, McLindon called the last defense witness, a deputy who said he was never asked to beat anybody by the sheriff. At times Ackal would say, "take care of that for me, baby," but Scott Hotard said he never interpreted it as an order to do something illegal.
Hotard also testified that his stepson was arrested on a drug charge during a period when he didn't work at the sheriff's office, telling him he was beaten at the jail. He initially didn't believe him he said, but now does.
The narcotics division under scrutiny during the trial had an icy relationship with the rest of the sheriff's office, Hotard said.
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