U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna

U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna

A federal judge in Lafayette said Thursday he’s inclined to order public release of the amount Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal’s office agreed to pay this year to the young child of a man who was killed while handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car in 2014.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna said at a morning hearing that he wasn’t ready to do it just yet.

Hanna, who oversaw a civil rights lawsuit over the death of 22-year-old Victor White III, granted a request by The Advocate and KATC-TV to intervene in the case, over the objection of an attorney for the child’s mother, Shandell Bradley.

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Hanna asked both sides to file further arguments in the next few weeks over the issue of releasing the settlement figure.

“I would say you’re probably on the winning side at this point, but I’m not there yet,” the judge told Scott Sternberg, attorney for the news organizations.

The Louisiana Sheriffs' Association insurance pool, which cut a check in April on behalf of Ackal’s office under the terms of the settlement, blacked out the amount in a response to a June records request by The Advocate.

An attorney for the insurance pool cited another judge’s order, sealing the minutes of the March settlement conference at which the dollar figure and other issues were discussed.

Hanna expressed reluctance to unseal those minutes. Sternberg responded that while those minutes ought to be public, the media organizations were only seeking an order forcing the insurance pool to release an unredacted copy of the check.

“It’s public money, paid with taxpayer funds, and we have a right to see that,” he argued.

The Advocate, KATC challenge sealing of Iberia Parish sheriff's settlement over gun death in patrol car

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Carol Powell Lexing, a Monroe-based attorney representing Bradley, argued for the “competing interest” of protecting the child from harassment. Releasing the amount of the payout “will become disruptive at this point to the child’s life,” she argued.

Hanna expressed sympathy for that viewpoint, citing a concern for “the interests of that child and the process of this court.”

White died from a single gunshot wound to the chest while his wrists were handcuffed behind him as he sat in a vehicle in the parking lot of the sheriff’s Patrol Center following a drug arrest.

His death helped spark a wider investigation into alleged civil rights violations by deputies in Ackal’s office. That probe ultimately led 11 deputies to plead guilty, but a Shreveport jury acquitted Ackal at a federal trial in 2016.

White’s death itself did not result in any criminal charges. A coroner ruled it a suicide, and after investigations by both Louisiana State Police and the FBI, state and federal prosecutors declined to pursue charges.

But Hanna ruled last year that a civil trial could go forward because there were “genuine issues of fact” over the responsibility for White’s death.

The March settlement ended the case.

Hanna dismissed an argument by Bradley’s attorneys that The Advocate filed its motion too late, calling it “an important enough issue, we ought to get to the merits.”

He set an Aug. 3 date for the news organizations to file additional arguments, and another 10 days for Bradley’s attorneys to respond.

Sternberg argued that a trust could be set up to address concerns over protecting the child, rather than simply denying public release of the settlement amount.

He said afterward that Louisiana courts have consistently held that “the payment of public funds is a public record. That’s what the Public Records Act is for. That’s why we feel so strongly about this.”

Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.