BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A jury must decide whether the shooting death of a handcuffed man in the rear of a patrol car was a suicide, accident or “at the hand of a sheriff’s deputy,” a federal judge said in a ruling filed Monday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna refused to throw out a lawsuit against Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal and a deputy over the March 2014 death of 22-year-old Victor White III.
The Justice Department and state prosecutors ruled out criminal charges in White’s death, but the judge said the manner of White’s death hasn’t been “conclusively established.”
“Whether White died deliberately by his own hand, accidentally, or at the hand of a sheriff’s deputy is an ultimate question to be decided by the jury, and the jury’s function in that regard should not be usurped,” Hanna wrote in a 54-page ruling.
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The judge said there are “factual discrepancies” that raise questions about the “trustworthiness” of the Louisiana State Police’s investigation of White’s death.
A parish coroner ruled in 2014 that the New Iberia man shot himself in the chest following his drug-related arrest. An autopsy showed a bullet entered the right side of White’s chest, exited his left armpit and lodged in his left bicep.
A forensic pathologist concluded it was possible for the gunshot to be self-inflicted even though White’s hands were handcuffed behind his back, according to the local district attorney’s office.
Hanna said it’s unclear how White sustained facial injuries visible in autopsy photographs.
“There are multiple conflicting accounts as to whether he had the wounds on his face before or after the fatal shot was fired,” the judge wrote.
The Justice Department announced in 2015 that no federal charges would be filed in White’s death. Federal authorities reviewed material from the State Police investigation and consulted independent medical experts before deciding there was insufficient evidence to prove that any officer fired a weapon at White, according to a Dec. 8, 2015, statement by the Justice Department.
A February 2016 statement from the 16th Judicial District Attorney’s Office said there was “insufficient credible evidence” to conclude that White did not shoot himself. The district attorney’s office said video footage shows White reaching around to his front pants pocket after a deputy handcuffed him behind his back and placed him in a patrol car.
White broke down in tears and refused to exit the cruiser when the deputy drove him to a sheriff’s office facility, the statement said, adding that he also remarked that he “could not go back to jail” and asked the deputy to tell his relatives that he loved them. A lieutenant said White shouted, “I’m gone!” before the gunshot. Deputies said they found him slumped forward with a .25-caliber handgun on the seat near him.
The district attorney’s statement said tests showed gunshot residue on White’s hands. A trooper’s report on White’s shooting said a crime scene investigator, Stacie Smith, went to the scene of the shooting, “bagged” White’s hands and took photographs, then went to a hospital to test White’s hands for gunshot residue.
Smith, however, testified at a deposition that she went straight to the hospital after getting a call about the shooting, didn’t bag White’s hands and didn’t take any crime scene photos at the scene.
“She also testified she performed two (gunshot residue) tests and the result of the second is not apparent in the record,” the judge wrote.
The judge also noted that no gunshot residue tests were performed on officers at the shooting scene.
“Given the factual discrepancies in the method and number of tests, there is at least some question as to the trustworthiness of the investigation reported by (the trooper),” the judge wrote.
Shandell Marie Bradley, the mother of White’s daughter, sued the sheriff and Deputy Justin Ortis in 2015. Ortis had patted down White and found marijuana in a pants pocket but didn’t confiscate a gun before he handcuffed him.
“They killed Victor White,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Carol Powell-Lexing. “There’s never been any doubt in my mind.”
An attorney for Ackal and Ortis didn’t immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment.
Ackal was acquitted last November of federal civil rights charges accusing him of ordering the beatings of prisoners and orchestrating a brazen cover-up. Ten deputies pleaded guilty in the case.