NEW ORLEANS - A former Orleans Parish Prison deputy will serve five years probation in the death of an inmate he abandoned during a suicide watch.
William Thompson was sentenced Friday following his guilty to plea to malfeasance in the suicide of Coast Guard commander William Goetzee.
After providing tearful victim impact statements urging jail time, Goetzee's family was visibly upset by the sentence from Orleans Parish Criminal Court Judge Camille Buras.
“They’re shocked,” said Mary Howell, attorney for Goetzee’s family. “They’re shocked that he got probation. They’re very concerned about what sort of message this sends.”
Buras also imposed 200 hours of community service and periodic drug testing. Thompson, who apologized in a brief statement to the family, could have received up to five years in prison.
Thompson admitted leaving his post several times while he was assigned to an around-the-clock suicide watch over Goetzee. Thompson also confessed to falsifying records to cover up his absences on the day Goetzee killed himself, Aug. 7, 2011.
Goetzee, who was having acute mental problems, had been arrested after trying to wrestle a gun from a security guard outside of federal court. The Coast Guard employee had expressed suicidal thoughts before his arrest, then repeated those thoughts to prison doctors once he was jailed.
Goetzee killed himself by swallowing wads of toilet paper while being housed in the jail’s psychiatric ward.
Goetzee’s sister, Margaret Nagle of New Jersey, provided a victim impact statement Friday detailing the horror of not being able to make contact with her brother after his arrest, and despair of not being able to get any answers from the sheriff’s office afterward.
“His last days were spent in pain, agony, hopelessness and despair,” Nagle said. “He was locked away in a barren cell on the 10th floor in 100 degree weather, no air conditioning, wearing nothing but a suicide smock.”
“Mr. Thompson walked away from Billy, for hours, leaving him there to die,” Nagle testified. “Mr. Thompson isn’t just responsible for my brother’s death. He destroyed our lives, too.”
Thompson was succinct when given an opportunity to speak before being sentenced.
“I’m sorry for my actions,” he said. “I take responsibility for them and I apologize to the entire Goetzee family.”
After the hearing, Thompson’s attorney Robert Jenkins said he was pleased at the outcome. “We’re pleased that the court looked at the PSI (pre-sentence investigation) and determined he was a good candidate for probation. He will do everything the court asks of him,” Jenkins said.
The conviction and sentence of Thompson, who was fired after Goetzee’s death, comes at a time when the U.S. Department of Justice is negotiating a consent decree with the Sheriff’s Office to address longstanding issues at the jail. An earlier Justice Department report detailed problems that include brutality by inmates, inadequate medical care and rampant contraband.
Civil rights attorneys have documented 37 inmate deaths at the prison since 2006, including six that were classified as suicides.