An Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy who failed to notice for 90 minutes that a 15-year-old boy had hanged himself inside an Orleans Justice Center cell was booked Wednesday on a count of malfeasance in office.
Keriana Alexcee was arrested in connection with the Oct. 17 suicide of Jaquin Thomas, whose death prompted protests and a New Orleans City Council hearing. Investigators said that Alexcee “failed in her duties to properly supervise inmates.”
Magistrate Commissioner Robert Blackburn ordered Alexcee released on her own recognizance, over the objections of a prosecutor. She was represented by a public defender for her first appearance in court.
A Sheriff’s Office lieutenant said in a warrant that missteps leading up to the suicide went far higher up the chain of command than Alexcee, 25, who was the sole deputy on duty that night in the youth tier of the city's jail, which is struggling with severe staffing shortages.
The warrant says there were “conflicting statements or beliefs among ranking officers” about whether guards in the youth tier were required to check on inmates every 15 minutes.
Katie Schwartzmann, one of the attorneys whose lawsuit resulted in the court-ordered reform plan under which the jail now operates, said there should have been no ambiguity on that point.
“The consent judgment is very clear that the youth tier is a special-population tier, and the staff is supposed to be doing rounds on special-population tiers in 15-minute intervals," said Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans. "There’s no question about that.”
The suicide of the youngest inmate at the Orleans Parish jail was caught on surveillance vid…
She added, “For there to be confusion among ranking officials about how frequently they’re supposed to be circulating staff on special-supervision tiers at this point is inexcusable."
Jeanine McNeal, a family friend who helped raise Thomas, said she also blamed the higher-ups at the jail.
McNeal said she did not believe Alexcee should have been arrested and that she was dismayed when she was told by the Sheriff's Office that the guard's arrest would be the end of their investigation into the suicide.
“Once I learned about it, I was very saddened by it,” McNeal said. “I don’t believe it’s just one person, I believe it’s the whole system and the way that it’s being operated.”
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman said he could not comment on whether the investigation into Thomas’ death would continue.
Meanwhile, the warrant lays out a nearly minute-by-minute account of Thomas’ final hours inside the jail, based on video surveillance and statements from Alexcee.
Thomas, who had been arrested in July on suspicion of taking part in a fatal shooting in New Orleans East, last entered his cell about 12:17 p.m. Oct. 17.
Alexcee clocked in at 6:30 p.m. for what was supposed to be a 12-hour shift. She entered the youth tier at 6:53 p.m., deputies said. At roughly the same time that Alexcee went on duty, Thomas could be seen on video writing something inside his cell, deputies said.
A video camera pointed into the cell captured him standing on a stool about 7:35 p.m. and reaching for the cell’s window, according to the report.
Deputies said that Alexcee should have noticed that Thomas was “securing the ligature to the metal safety bar affixed to the window in his cell, preparing to take his own life.”
On the video, Thomas was last seen moving at about 7:48 p.m.
Over the course of about 2½ minutes, starting at roughly 7:54 p.m., Alexcee passed Thomas’ cell four times. But she never looked inside to see what was happening, deputies said. Investigators said that was “clearly a deviation” from jail guidelines.
At 7:56 p.m., Alexcee “abandoned her assignment” and walked over to a different section of the jail, according to the warrant. She returned to the youth tier once. Deputies said that at 8:49 p.m. she again went to another section of the jail, where she stayed for nearly a half-hour.
The youth tier was apparently unmanned during that time. She did not return until 9:18 p.m., deputies said. A minute later she looked into Thomas’s cell, to discover him hanging.
One hour, 30 minutes and 27 seconds had passed since Thomas wrapped a mattress cover around his neck, the warrant said.
Deputies and nurses tried to perform CPR on Thomas and then took him to University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 10:11 p.m.
Deputies said there was no question that Thomas had killed himself, as confirmed by an autopsy and a suicide note found at his desk. The contents of that note were not described in the warrant.