The suicide of the youngest inmate at the Orleans Parish jail was caught on surveillance video, an attorney for the Sheriff’s Office said at a City Council hearing Tuesday.
Attorney Blake Arcuri told the council's Criminal Justice Committee that when a deputy found 15-year-old Jaquin Thomas in his cell on the night of Oct. 17, the boy had hanged himself with a mattress cover.
His death has spawned a criminal investigation that likely will rely in large part on that video. It also has set off the latest chapter in the long-running public debate over holding youths inside the adult jail in New Orleans.
City Council members and representatives from the city, the jail, Criminal District Court and the District Attorney’s Office used the 2½-hour hearing to discuss ongoing efforts to reform the troubled adult jail and expand the city's Youth Study Center, a detention facility for young people.
But Thomas’ family members said those plans come too late for them.
“I hear a lot of what’s going to happen going forth, and that’s all wonderful,” said Rosalind Smith-Brown, 51, his aunt. “It just seems like he’s the sacrificial lamb.”
Thomas was booked into the adult jail July 28 in connection with a killing in New Orleans East seven days earlier.
City Councilwoman Susan Guidry used much of the hearing to go over in minute detail what happened to Thomas in the jail and how the fatal outcome could have been avoided.
Notably absent was Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who sent Arcuri in his stead.
At the time of Thomas' arrest, 15-year-olds accused of murder in Louisiana were automatically transferred to adult custody. In June, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a law allowing judges to order 15- and 16-year-olds accused of murder to be held in juvenile jail instead, but that part of the law did not go into effect until Aug. 1, four days after Thomas was arrested.
Andrew Bevinetto, Thomas’ defense attorney, has said he hoped to ask a judge to send his client to juvenile custody if and when the District Attorney’s Office accepted the case for prosecution. But the deadline for that charging decision was not until late November.
In the meantime, as court officials acknowledged, Thomas’ first appearance in adult court seems to have slipped through the cracks. He did not have a bail hearing for nearly a month after his July 28 transfer to adult jail.
Criminal District Court Chief Judge Laurie White suggested that the Sheriff’s Office should have informed the court about Thomas’ transfer, but Arcuri suggested the failure lay with the Clerk of Court's Office.
Either way, Guidry said, “I see this gaping hole in this kid’s care and custody.”
“The system’s broken, clearly, in terms of what triggers when notifications are made,” said Councilman Jason Williams, a criminal defense attorney. “Certainly a child is not supposed to figure out his way through the adult criminal justice system.”
Thomas’ bail was finally set at $550,000 on Aug. 24, then lowered to $300,000 during a Sept. 13 hearing in front of Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell. Thomas’ attorney had complained that his bail was set far higher than an adult co-defendant's.
That was the last time Thomas appeared in court before his death.
Arcuri and family members also laid out the boy's life inside the jail. The Sheriff’s Office said he was given full access to educational opportunities and had not been placed on suicide watch, but those who knew him more intimately said he struggled inside the jail.
Upon booking, Arcuri said, Thomas was given standard medical and mental health screenings and was classified as a “medium-security, non-predator youthful offender.”
He was placed in the jail’s all-male youth tier. At the time of his death, he was the only 15-year-old inmate there, along with one 16-year-old and 11 17-year-olds, Arcuri said.
“There is no adult that is housed in that tier,” Arcuri said. “The moment somebody turns 18, he’s going to a different unit.”
Thomas took classes for three hours a day Mondays and Wednesdays in language arts, math, science and social studies. He was rated “proficient” in his writing skills.
“He was considered a good student by his teacher,” Arcuri said.
But on Aug. 29, Thomas and the sole 16-year-old on the tier got into a fight. The scuffle left Thomas with cuts to his lip and his right wrist, Arcuri said, adding that an order was entered into the jail’s “classification system” to keep the teens separated.
“Based on what we know now, this altercation is not considered to have been a factor in his suicide,” Arcuri said.
Nevertheless, according to family members and a mentor, Thomas was shaken by the fight, and his time in jail was clouded by doubts over his future.
"He cried a lot. He would tell me he cried in his cell, because if you cry like openly, you know, you're going to be preyed upon," Ameer Baraka, a mentor who met with Thomas several times in jail, told WWL-TV.
“He had over a month to sit in an adult jail with a child’s mind, not knowing his fate,” said Smith-Brown, the aunt. “He had no idea where he was at, where he was going.”
Two days before Thomas’ death, said Jeanine McNeal, 55, who described herself as Thomas’ “nanny,” she went to visit him in jail. She described that visit as “very troubling” because it appeared he had not eaten in a long time.
“He had a problem with people eating his food. He was intimidated, and he was scared. He just didn’t know where he was going or what the next step was,” McNeal told the council hearing.
But Thomas was not on suicide watch the night he died, Arcuri said. When deputies entered his cell about 9:20 p.m. Oct. 17, they found a 6-foot-long, black mattress cover that he had used to hang himself around his neck. He also had an Ace bandage wrapped around his neck, although its significance in the investigation into his death, which the Coroner’s Office has determined was a suicide, is not clear.
The Sheriff’s Office's Investigative Services Bureau is handling the investigation into the circumstances of Thomas’ death internally, Arcuri said. As they probe whether any deputies failed in their duty to protect the youth, investigators will be aided by a video that Arcuri said captures Thomas’ death from “some distance away.”
“It’s not exactly a close-up view,” Arcuri said. “There was nobody assigned to actively monitor that camera.”
Ultimately, the decision whether to charge anyone in connection with Thomas’ death will lie with District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro. Arcuri gave no timeline for when the internal investigation might be completed.
But the fallout from Thomas’ death is already coming into focus. Guidry and others on the council said they are now more determined than ever to make sure no juveniles are held inside the Orleans Parish adult jail — in stark contrast to Gusman’s plan to expand the number of beds for youths there.
Gusman has said he would like to create a special area for inmates under 18 in a new phase of jail construction.
Thomas’ 13-year-old sister, Jasmine, spoke out against that scheme.
“If you can’t monitor your inmates with a smaller system, how do you expect to expand?” she asked. “If you expand, there will be more problems like what happened with my brother with no monitoring.”
The city, meanwhile, plans to expand the juvenile jail instead.
Charles West, from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, said city officials aim to finalize plans next year for an expansion of the Youth Study Center and begin construction in 2018. All of the facility’s 40 beds are now full, with 22 of them occupied by youths charged as adults.