Louisiana Sheriff Cleared of Racist Acts in Jail

     SHREVEPORT (CN) — A sheriff accused of encouraging violent, racist acts inside a jailhouse and in the black community in the small town surrounding it, has been acquitted of all counts by a federal jury.
     Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal, 73, was acquitted last week of all charges, including conspiracy and deprivation of civil rights. Jury deliberation lasted just four hours on the fifth day of trial.
     “I’m not a crook and I don’t intend to be one,” Ackal said after walking out of the Louisiana’s Western District federal courthouse. “The prosecutors had the bad guys but they wanted my scalp,” Ackal said, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate.
     Ackal faced charges brought by the federal government in two separate indictments that alleged violence on separate occasions, in 2011 and 2014.
     Prosecutors charged Ackal ordered deputies to rough up his enemies and encouraged inmate abuse.
     Ackal was also accused of covering up evidence, and in a leaked recording taken prior to trial, Ackal was heard threatening to shoot a federal prosecutor between the eyes.
     In a separate leaked recording, Ackal spewed anti-semantic rants at another prosecutor.
     Two of the charges brought against Ackal revolved around violence allegedly inflicted upon detainees during beatings in the Iberia Parish Jail on April 29, 2011. The jail is in New Iberia, about two hours south of New Orleans.
     Lt. Gerald Savoy, a current top ranking officer, and nine former employees of the sheriff’s office pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges over the jail beatings. Several deputies testified during trial, describing a culture of impunity in which the sheriff not just knew of, but encouraged mistreatment of suspects and inmates. Proceedings were transferred to the U.S. District Court in Shreveport because of pre-trial publicity.
     Testimony during trial included that from a former guard who said he was fired after submitting a video of an officer allowing his police dog to bite an inmate, according to accounts.
     Ackal had been under federal scrutiny since 2008, his first year in office.
     Officers testified they took prisoners and pre-trial detainees to the jail’s chapel to beat them, on Sheriff Ackal’s orders, because the chapel was the only room in the jail without video surveillance.
     Federal prosecutors attempted to portray Ackal as a ruthless leader who used acts of brutality to even the score in his personal affairs.
     During closing arguments, federal prosecutor Mark Blumberg called the number of people beaten by narcotics officers during Ackal’s rein “staggering,” and estimated victims numbered in the hundreds. “It amounted to a ‘widespread conspiracy to use more force than necessary,” Bloomberg said.
     Bloomberg went on to say the kind of violence at the center of the trial could not have “remained hidden, in secret, from the most powerful law enforcement officer in the parish,” according to the Advocate.
     But Narcotics Agent Ben LaSalle testified during trial that Ackal had no part in the prison abuses.
     LaSalle said he had personally participated in several of the abusive events, including one in which he held his baton between his legs and told a sex offender inmate to suck it.
     “I put my baton between my legs and told him to suck the baton,” LaSalle said during his testimony, according to trial accounts.
     When asked why he had done it, LaSalle said, “I did it because I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble.”
     Ackal, who won re-election last year to a third term, described the allegations against him as a smear campaign and said the deputies who testified against him “betrayed my trust and a lot of people depending on them for their safety,” according to a report from the Advocate.
     The shocking allegations of abuse went mostly uncontested during the five-day trial.
     John McLindon, Ackal’s attorney, said during trial that Ackal did not know about the apparently routine beatings inside the jail or other brutal treatment of inmates.
     Ackal, who did not take a stand during trial, said later the deputies and their supervisor had acted in secret and covered up their abuses. Had he known about them, he would have disciplined and fired the deputies involved, he said.
     “One of the things that this case did was help eliminate rogues from 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 courthouse after the verdict. “That is totally opposite 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.”
     Ackal supporters hailed the verdict as vindication for their sheriff, who was stripped of his gun as he awaited trial.
     Those who oppose the sheriff — in particular, many residents in West End, New Iberia’s historically black community, told the Advocate they feel Ackal is unfit to serve as sheriff. “It’s going to be a hard road back, Marlon Lewis, a barber running for City Council told the paper.
     New Iberia Mayor Hilda Curry told the Advocate the Ackal accusations “placed a shadow over the city,” and “caused an issue with perception.” She said there are “many excellent deputies who work for the Sheriff’s Office.”