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Monday, May 27, 2024 | Back issues
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La. Sheriff to Pay $1.75M |Over 2011 Prison Suicide

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman will pay $1.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of a U.S. Coast Guard commander who killed himself in 2011 while in the parish prison.

William Goetzee, 48, was being held in the mental health tier of Orleans Parish Prison because of an earlier suicide attempt when he asphyxiated on toilet paper in August 2011, attorneys for his family said in a written statement.

Because the prison realized Goetzee was actively suicidal, he was placed under "direct observation," meaning that someone should have been watching him at all time, court documents say.

However, the deputy assigned to watch Goetzee at the time of his death, William Thompson, left his post for many hours. During this time, Goetzee consumed enough toilet paper to asphyxiate himself, the attorney's statement said.

Thompson was subsequently fired and pleaded guilty to malfeasance in office.

In 2012, Goetzee's brother and sister filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that responsibility for their sibling's death should be borne not only by Thompson, but also by Sheriff Marlin Gusman, former prison chief psychiatrist Dr. Charles "Mike" Higgins, and the facility's former medical director, Dr. Samuel Gore.

The family noted that at the time of Goetzee's death, federal prisons were a lucrative source of revenue for the prison. Under a contract with the U.S. Marshall's Service, federal prisoners ,brought in twice as much money as state or local inmates, Goetzee's brother and sister say.

They claim that against this backdrop, the sheriff took their brother into his jail knowing full well that he couldn't protect him or provide him with proper care.

The Goetzee's claim that both before and after their brother's death, suicidal inmates were often left unattended with the knowledge of the jail's doctors, security supervisors, and, at times, with the sheriff himself.

"We're pleased that Sheriff Gusman through this settlement has finally acknowledged that William Goetzee's death was not simply the fault of one rouge deputy, but the result of an entrenched problem in the jail," said Barry Scheck, a partner with the law firm Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, which represents the family along with Mary Howell, in New Orleans, and Nancy Gertner, in Boston.

"We hope this settlement will persuade the Sheriff to take responsibility for the unconstitutional practices - in particular, the failure to properly supervise suicidal inmates - that continue to put inmates' lives at risk in the jail today," Scheck said.

The sheriff's office, which could not be reached for comment on the settlement, has been under a federal consent decree for the past three years related to conditions at Orleans Parish Prison.

Under the decree the Sheriff's Office is required to bring the jail up to constitutional standards.

Since Goetzee died in 2011 there have been at least four suicides in the Orleans Parish Prison, and in one three-a-half month period alone, from September to December 2015, there were 16 suicide attempts, according to federal court monitors who testified at a recent status hearing related to the consent decree.

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