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Orleans Parish Jail Settles Prisoner Suicide Suit for $1.75 Million

On March 11, 2016, Orleans Parish jail officials in Louisiana agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the 2011 suicide of a mentally ill detainee. The suit, filed against Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and numerous other jail personnel, alleged that prisoner William Goetzee, a career reserve officer in the U.S. Coast Guard who had exhibited suicidal tendencies after his arrest, was left unsupervised in his cell.

The defendants admitted that jail policy required suicidal prisoners to be watched around the clock, but the deputy assigned to monitor Goetzee left his post. That deputy, William Thompson, was not only fired but also criminally charged with malfeasance in office; he pleaded guilty and was sentenced in September 2012 to five years’ probation.

For the past several years the Orleans Parish jail had been operating under a court-supervised consent decree. [See: PLN, Dec. 2016, p.16; Sept. 2016, p.44].

Goetzee, 48, was arrested on August 2, 2011 for attempting to seize the firearm of a security guard at a federal courthouse, for the purpose, his family claimed, to use the gun to kill himself. Goetzee apparently committed suicide in his cell by swallowing pieces of toilet paper.

However, that was not the last such death at an Orleans Parish jail. Another prisoner, Cleveland Tumblin, hung himself in a shower area in March 2016 at the newly-opened $145 million Orleans Parish Justice Center. The sheriff’s office alleged that Tumblin had “proceeded through his scheduled morning activities without incident, never indicating, exhibiting or reporting an intention to harm himself.”

“In their deaths and others, the Sheriff’s office has failed these men and their families, as well as our whole community.... I wish I could say things are improving, but they are not,” said Katie M. Schwartzmann with the MacArthur Justice Center, one of the attorneys who represented Goetzee’s family. “The Consent Decree has been in place for almost three years and still people are dying in our jail.”

Emma Freudenberger, another of the family’s attorneys with the New York-based law firm of Neufeld, Scheck & Brustin, LLP, noted that the lawsuit over Goetzee’s death claimed that jail staff had treated him in a “callous, harsh and indifferent manner,” adding, “It wasn’t just a problem with one rogue deputy.”

The attorney representing Sheriff Gusman said the sheriff’s office had been “strong-armed” into settling the wrongful death suit. The settlement was reached three days before the case was scheduled to go to trial. See: Nagle v. Gusman, U.S.D.C. (E.D. La.), Case No. 2:12-cv-01910.

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Related legal case

Nagle v. Gusman