Trial opens for sheriff charged in jail beatings, cover-up

FILE - In this March 31, 2016, file photo, Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal, center, leaves the U.S. District Courthouse in Lafayette, La., after being arraigned as part of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division investigation of the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office. A federal jury will decide if Ackal is guilty of ordering the beatings of prisoners in a jail’s chapel and orchestrating a cover-up that included burning of files and lying under oath. No matter the verdict, the Justice Department’s case against Ackal already has left bruises on the community that first elected him eight years ago. Jury selection begins Monday, Oct. 31. (Duane Fatherree/The Daily Iberian via AP, File)
FILE - In this March 31, 2016, file photo, Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal, center, leaves the U.S. District Courthouse in Lafayette, La., after being arraigned as part of an ongoing U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division investigation of the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Office. A federal jury will decide if Ackal is guilty of ordering the beatings of prisoners in a jail’s chapel and orchestrating a cover-up that included burning of files and lying under oath. No matter the verdict, the Justice Department’s case against Ackal already has left bruises on the community that first elected him eight years ago. Jury selection begins Monday, Oct. 31. (Duane Fatherree/The Daily Iberian via AP, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana sheriff charged with ordering the beatings of prisoners and orchestrating a brazen cover-up is standing trial this week in federal court.

No matter the jury’s verdict, the Justice Department’s case against Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal already has left bruises on the Cajun community that first elected him eight years ago.

The local district attorney has dismissed more than 100 criminal cases connected to nine former sheriff’s deputies who pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges over the jail beatings.

The cases against Ackal and his former subordinates also have inflamed racial tensions and eroded the public’s trust in a police force that already had a strained relationship with residents, according to the sheriff’s critics.

“We have been very fortunate not to have an uprising in our parish,” said Roberta Boudreaux, who ran an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Ackal last year. “As a community, we’ve been very patient.”

Ackal, who has been barred from carrying a gun since his March indictment, remains in office despite calls for his resignation. His attorney has described the evidence against him as “weak” and denied that race is a factor in the civil rights case.

However, Ackal’s indictment accuses him of using “racially derogatory language” when two narcotics agents told him they had gotten drunk off-duty and assaulted two young black men in November 2008. Instead of disciplining the agents, Ackal allegedly instructed them to lie and directed a supervisor to delete a report that named the agents as suspects in the attack.

Ackal, 73, also is accused of threatening to shoot one of the federal prosecutors assigned to his case between his “Jewish eyes.” Prosecutors said the comment was captured on a tape provided by an informant.

Khadijah Rashad, a local activist who has helped circulate a petition to recall Ackal, said the parish’s black population has borne the brunt of police brutality and misconduct over the years.

“It’s always been a problem within Iberia Parish. It’s gotten worse under Sheriff Ackal,” she said.

Ackal faces a prison sentence if he is convicted of charges including conspiracy and depriving prisoners of their constitutional rights.

The case against Ackal centers on an April 2011 “shakedown” for contraband at the parish jail. When a prisoner made a lewd comment, Ackal directed a deputy to “take care of” the culprit in retaliation, according to the indictment.

Officers took a prisoner to the chapel, where there weren’t any surveillance cameras to record the man’s beating. When that inmate blamed another for the lewd remark, officers brought the other prisoner into the chapel. One of the officers allegedly held a baton between his own legs and forced it into that man’s mouth, simulating a sex act.

The indictment says five prisoners were beaten in the chapel that day. Ackal and another supervisor, Gerald Savoy, allegedly watched as officers beat one of the men with batons. Savoy was scheduled to be tried alongside Ackal, but he pleaded guilty Wednesday to depriving a beaten prisoner of his constitutional rights.

“No official in the chapel stopped the unjustified abuse,” says the indictment, which also accuses Savoy of ordering a K-9 handler to intimidate two prisoners with his barking dog.

Among other allegations, the indictment says:

  • Officers wrote false or misleading reports and lied during depositions for civil lawsuits over prisoner beatings.
  • Sheriff’s office officials burned internal affairs records on excessive-force allegations after Ackal ordered them destroyed in 2009.
  • In 2014, Ackal instructed two deputies to “take care of” a man who allegedly assaulted a relative of the sheriff.

Ackal’s attorney, John McLindon, said in a court filing that the sheriff isn’t accused of beating anybody himself. The indictment only claims that Ackal’s deputies “assumed, guessed or speculated” that the sheriff wanted people beaten, McLindon wrote.

District Attorney Bo Duhé said his office sent several hundred letters notifying defense attorneys that their clients had cases involving the nine deputies who pleaded guilty. Duhé’s office has dismissed at least 107 pending cases, mostly drug-related charges, since it began reviewing files spanning Ackal’s tenure. Defense lawyers also have filed dozens of motions for new trials since Ackal’s indictment.

“It obviously has had a very significant effect from the standpoint of confidence in the system,” Duhé said. “We are and should be held up to a higher standard.”

Jury selection for Ackal’s trial is scheduled to start Monday in Shreveport, more than 200 miles north of Iberia Parish.

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