NEW ORLEANS - One police expert said that not since Rodney King has he seen a worse case of police brutality against a man in handcuffs than what happened to Shane Gates on Nov. 16, 2006. But according to Gates, a 37-year-old law office manager, his injuries were only the beginning of a long nightmarish cover-up by St. Tammany parish authorities.
Photographs of Gates a few days after he was pulled over and arrested by St. Tammy Parish sheriff’s deputies show how doctors used 27 stitches to sew up a snaking laceration that almost tore off Gates’ left eyelid. Blood stains cover the sweater and shorts he was wearing that night.
Gates said the attack came without warning after he repeatedly tried to lift his head from the hood of a deputy’s car because it was burning his face. He was being held against the cruiser – in handcuffs – after a traffic stop allegedly turned into a wild high-speed chase.
“They held me down on the hood of the car which was still running and very hot. And they were smushing my face into the hood of the car,” he said.
As Gates recalled, when he tried to lift his head, he was first pepper-sprayed, then thrown to the asphalt where a deputy repeatedly pounded his face into the pavement.
“The officer grabbed me and spun me around, threw me to the ground. He then jumped on top of me and he held me there – while I’m handcuffed – and he grabbed the back of my head by the scruff,” Gates said. “And he just started smacking my face into I-12 until I was unconscious “
Police report alleges Gates was drunk, Defense says he had just bought new car
The police report by sheriff’s deputies, and the account brought to trial recently by the St. Tammany district attorney’s office, states that Gates was stopped by Deputy Nathan Miller after a chase that ended with him stumbling out of his car drunk.
“The driver and sole occupant of the GTO, later identified as Shane Gates, after realizing that a sheriff’s unit was behind him, suddenly accelerated to 104 miles per hour,” the report reads.
Later in the narrative, the report states that Deputy Miller “observed an extremely obvious odor of some unknown alcoholic beverage emitting from Gates’ breath and person. While trying to assist Gates from the shoulder of the road, Gates grabbed (Deputy) Miller and started wrestling with him.”
Miller then called for backup and, according to the report, Deputy Roger Gottardi soon arrived at the scene. When Gates was combative and resisted arrest, Gottardi reported falling on the suspect trying to subdue him.
“Gottardi was able to bring Gates down and hold him there until other deputies could arrive,” the report states. The narrative goes on to say that Gates suffered a “one half-inch laceration.”
But a close investigation of the case raises questions about the sheriff’s version of what happened, starting with the photographs of Gates taken several days later. In the photos, Gates’ left eyelid shows a wound far more extensive than half an inch long, an injury that required Gates to be sent from Louisiana Heart Hospital in Lacombe to a second emergency room in Mississippi that had a plastic surgeon on call.
The DWI charge against Gates stems from medical records that reportedly show he registered a .273 blood alcohol level, more than three times the legal limit, and a level that experts say makes it nearly impossible to drive.
Gates denies drinking any alcohol. Evidence gathered by his legal team shows that when Gates was stopped, he was behind the wheel of a brand new Pontiac GTO he had just purchased just 20 minutes earlier from a Slidell car dealership.
Defense questions evidence
One of Gates’ attorneys, James Williams, said the DWI allegation is ludicrous.
“Unless you had a syringe injecting the Jack Daniels directly into your veins from the car dealership to the stop, and even then, I think it would probably be impossible,” Williams said.
Williams said the DWI allegation is just one of many troubling elements in the case.
For example, the medical reports showing the blood test have mysteriously disappeared.
“There is no evidence that they ever did any type of test whatsoever,” Gates contends. “The .273 number is just a made-up number that fit the story so it fit the story that I can’t remember what I did.”
Gates and his lawyers also contest the chase, one in which he allegedly topped 100 miles an hour twice and trucks off the road, as fiction.
According to Williams, radio dispatch tapes show that the entire stop actually unfolded over about half a mile, and the deputy never even used his siren.
“So this big bad flight that gives rise to this felony flight jury trial lasted for six-tenths of a mile and 80 seconds, at the end of which, we get a beating unlike anything I’ve seen in my career,” Williams said.
Some facts are undisputed.
The deputy who stopped Gates, Miller, admitted he later resigned from the sheriff’s office after he was found guilty of violating several departmental rules, including falsifying testimony and sleeping on the job.
And the deputy who caused Gates’ injuries, Gottardi, has since been demoted from detective for an unspecified violation.
“All of those factors combine to show just how incredible this is,” Williams said. “It’s egregious. It’s frustrating. It makes me very disappointed in our legal system….The district attorney should not be prosecuting the victim. The district attorney should be prosecuting the perpetrators.”
Former Supreme Court Justice weighs in
Williams isn’t the only veteran legal mind to arrive at that conclusion. Former Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal Calogero said he was so outraged by the case, he joined Gates’ legal team.
“Naturally it made me upset,” Calogero said. “I’ve been part of the judicial system for an awful long time and I saw an injustice, personally, and that’s why I took the case.”
Despite the contradictory versions of what happened that night, Gates was cited for several violations, including DWI, obstruction of a highway, felony flight from an officer and resisting arrest.
St. Tammany Sheriff Jack Strain defended the action of his deputies. In a statement, Strain stated, “I know that everything we have done in this case has been ethical and appropriate. We look forward to having the evidence presented at the defendant’s trial for driving while intoxicated and resisting arrest.”
District Attorney Walter Reed's office said it could not comment on a pending case.
Gates said he is still searching for answers six years later. He already has undergone two surgeries, and is awaiting another one that he hopes will repair nerve damage to his face. In court, the obstruction of a highway charge was never pursued. Two charges are pending, the DWI and resisting arrest allegations.
When Shane Gates was faced a jury in July on a felony unlawful flight charge, prosecutors threw most of their evidence at him during the course of a five-day trial.
The verdict: not guilty. In fact, the jury returned their verdict within half an hour, one of the speediest acquittals in St. Tammany in recent memory.
“A week-long trial in this case, the jury comes back probably before they can sit down in the jury room and say, “Can we all see how ridiculous this is?” Williams commented. “They came back before they even had a chance to put down their purses and settle in. We prevailed. And prevailed in a venue where a lot of people don’t prevail.”
Gates’ legal team believes the trial was pursued – after multiple delays over the past six years – primarily to block a federal civil rights lawsuit that Gates filed against the sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices.
“All this,” Williams said, “is an opportunity to delay the inevitable justice that’s coming in the federal court from civil rights violations that arise out of this egregious beating.”
“The state, at least the sheriff in St. Tammany Parish, is I think avoiding paying expenses for this boy’s injuries,” Calogero said.
The civil suit was filed in October 2007, eleven months after the traffic stop. By law, the suit has been put on hold because of the St. Tammany district attorney’s office continues its prosecution of Gates.
Gates thought he would be able to go forward with his claims after his acquittal in July. But he has since been notified that the DA’s office is pressing ahead with the DWI and resisting arrest charge. No date has been set, but as misdemeanors, the district attorney will be allowed to present the case to a judge rather than a jury.
Williams believes that putting Gates through a second trial would be a violation of his Constitutional rights against double jeopardy, which prohibits putting a defendant on trial twice on the same charges.
“I think it has all kinds of double jeopardy implications,” Williams said. “As everyone knows, you can’t be tried twice for the same crime in America.”
WWL-TV legal analyst Chick Foret agrees that prosecutors might run into a double jeopardy problem.
“It seems to me that the evidence is going to be almost the same, if not the same,” Foret said. “Clearly, to me, you’ll have the same witnesses, you’ll have the same evidence, and you’ll have the same set of facts.”
One key element of the resisting arrest charge is a letter requesting the charge that appears to come from Miller, the ex-deputy who stopped Gates. But during sworn testimony Miller said he knew nothing about the letter.
Chuck Hughes is an attorney for the sheriff’s office, and his law firm also represents the insurance company that provides the sheriff’s liability policy. In one courtroom exchange, Hughes admitted that the resisting arrest charge could protect against an insurance claim by Gates.
In one portion of the transcript of his testimony, Hughes said, “It would be in the best interest of the sheriff’s office to have a resisting arrest conviction in a matter where there was a civil case, yes.”
Calogero said, “I think perpetuating this, keeping him out of trial for his damages under these circumstances is just not justified.”
But Sheriff Strain sees the complaints from Gates quite differently, saying he is posturing in order to leverage damages from the civil rights suit.
In a written statement, Strain said, “This is an unfortunate example of a defense attorney attempting to use the media to sway public opinion and strong-arm the government into settling lawsuits.”