Inmate's death at OPP raises questions about investigation

Inmate's death at OPP raises questions about investigation

Inmate's death at OPP raises questions about investigation

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wwltv.com

Posted on November 20, 2012 at 11:13 PM

Updated Tuesday, Nov 20 at 11:21 PM

Dennis Woltering / Eyewitness News
Email: dwoltering@wwltv.com | Twitter: @dwoltering

NEW ORLEANS - Tracy Barquet was 25 and married, with a young daughter, when he was arrested in the summer of 2010 for possession with intent to distribute marijuana and crack cocaine, plus possession of Diazepam, a habit-forming anti-anxiety drug.

He died seven days after he was locked up in Orleans Parish Prison before his case even went to trial.

“An inmate had found him and said that he was not moving. He had just been in there a week,” said Tracy Barquet Sr., his father.

Barquet missed his first court hearing six days after he was locked up. The court docket says "the defendant was not transported (to court) because he is in 5-point restraints/suicide watch."

Internal Orleans Parish Sheriff's Office investigations that Eyewitness News has obtained make no mention of Barquet being placed in five-point restraints or a suicide watch. They do examine two confrontations that Barquet had with guards that allegedly left him bruised and bleeding.

The coroner says his cause of death is "undetermined."

Barquet's is one of 37 deaths since 2006 that prison reform advocates call questionable.

“These deaths are telling us that we've got a real problem with the jail,” said attorney Mary Howell.

Sheriff Marlin Gusman's office conducted at least three investigations into what happened to Barquet.

“I would like to know what happened to my son,” said Barquet’s father.

The first investigation relies on interviews solely with deputies who witnessed or took part in a fight with Barquet two days before he missed that court hearing. That probe says Deputy Blair Burrell sprayed Barquet through the bars of his cell with pepper spray when the inmate refused to back away from the gate.

Then, when Burrell opened the gate, Barquet "ran from the tier" and got into a "physical altercation" with deputies. Afterward, Barquet was "on the floor bleeding from the nose," and was taken to the prison clinic "for treatment "of any injuries."

The report says Burrell was placed on working suspension for "unauthorized force” and "neglect of duty" among other violations, and Barquet was apparently in bad shape.

“One of the inmates says he was complaining about his head,” said his father.

The day after the first investigation and the court hearing he missed, other inmates found Barquet dead in his cell. That led to the second internal investigation.

One inmate said Barquet had trembled for about two days and said things that didn't make sense. He pointed to his head when asked if he's OK. That inmate said he notified deputies about Barquet's condition.

“And the lack of appropriate monitoring may be related to his death,” said attorney Mary Howell.

In that second investigation, other inmates said Barquet had dried blood on his face and appeared to have a broken nose.

One inmate, Herbert Adams, said he saw deputies treat Barquet "roughly,” use "unnecessary" force to restrain him and saw his body covered with bruises the following days.

But the sheriff's investigation said inmate Adams had a record of 25 arrests and no other inmate could corroborate his story.

“One of the real problems is that there's no real oversight on what’s happening with regard to these deaths,” said Howell.

A prison psychiatrist said he evaluated Barquet after his incident with deputies and gave him Benadryl plus two medications used for anti-psychotic behavior.

“I thought he would be in a safe place. I really did," said his father. "And he's dead now."

A third investigation came three days after Barquet died. This time, inmate Adams said "…deputies attacked and continuously beat …" Barquet when he tried to run off the tier.

Once Barquet was restrained, Adams said they "threw him" into the cell and he heard the deputies "repeatedly striking Barquet."

Another inmate, Brian Mitchell, said he witnessed two incidents in which deputies "used excessive force to restrain Barquet,” including the one Adams described.

The three deputies said they had to struggle to restrain Barquet a couple of times, but indicated no improper use of force.

The sheriff's investigation concluded the allegations of excessive force were "unfounded" due to the "lack of physical evidence" and inconsistencies among the alleged witnesses.

But Barquet's father questions whether what happened in prison caused, contributed to, or failed to prevent his son's death.

“We have a young kid that's dead and we can’t find out what really happened,” he said.

In a statement, a spokesman for Sheriff Gusman says the coroner "conducted an independent autopsy of inmate Barquet and found that there were no indications of any physical confrontations that would be fatal…."

Gusman says Burrell was terminated after the pepper spray incident and altercation with Barquet. However, the sheriff says "the termination of the former deputy and the passing of TracyBarquet are independent incidents with no relation to each other."

Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro says he doesn't have the resources to investigate a death in the jail unless he's notified it's a homicide.

“I don't know that this was a homicide. I don't know that anybody did anything that caused this man to die,” he said in an interview.

The New Orleans Police Department has a similar policy, saying it investigates when the coroner says a death in Orleans Parish Prison is suspicious or a homicide.

The loved ones of men who have died in prison and reform activists say it's not good enough for the sheriff's office to essentially investigate itself when examining the circumstances surrounding a death in prison.

“What we need is the same kind of oversight mechanisms we have for the police department,” said Howell.

She adds that Gusman signed a pledge to name an independent monitor to oversee the prison when he first ran for sheriff as a reform candidate, but she says that's a promise he has failed to keep.

Gusman responded in a statement.

“As we continue to rebuild and restore our facilities that were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, an independent monitor can play a productive part of the future of the sheriff's office,” Gusman said.

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