James Gill: Turner a gift to Gusman’s challengers

To Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman’s challengers in the upcoming election, a single court appearance by Willis “Lil Brother” Turner must be worth 20 prime-time commercials.

When Charlie Foti and Ira Thomas get on their hind legs at forums to declare that Gusman runs a lousy jail, the audience may nod in agreement, but it’s still just campaign rhetoric. Turner makes their point much more vividly every time deputies escort him from the jail for a hearing before Judge Frank Marullo.

It soon becomes apparent that Turner has not allowed incarceration to interfere with his drug habit. He is spectacularly stoned every time.

Foti has run a curiously muted campaign to regain the sheriff’s job, which he held for 30 years before getting elected state attorney general. That didn’t turn out too well for Foti, who survived only one term before voters turned him out of office. Gusman didn’t exactly cover himself with glory as the new sheriff either and now operates under a federal consent decree after expert court testimony labeled his jail the most violent and ill-run in America.

He might therefore be vulnerable to a vigorous or well-qualified challenger, but Foti turns 77 this year and may be forgiven if he has lost a step or two. Thomas is president of the Orleans Parish School Board, reduced by the educational reforms of recent years to a somewhat peripheral role. Overseeing a handful of schools bears only the vaguest resemblance to operating a huge slammer.

With only two weeks left before the election and not much by way of media from the opposition, Gusman must be a firm favorite to retain his job. But the spectacle of Turner staggering into court is proof enough that security at the jail remains a joke.

A video, retrieved from a sheriff’s office safe and shown at a court hearing last year, showed jailbirds drinking beer, shooting up, gambling and toting a handgun. Not to worry, said Gusman. The footage was shot at the old House of Detention, pressed back into service after Hurricane Katrina and since closed down because of its “state of disrepair and abhorrent lack of proper security measures.”

The public was not reassured for long. A deputy was discovered a few months later smuggling drugs into the jail, and, a couple of weeks ago, a gap leading to the outside was discovered in a duct space. An inmate with his wits about him might have escaped through it, although that obviously lets Turner out, so to speak.

Turner is awaiting trial for attempted murder after allegedly spraying Andrew Allen with bullets on a street last year. He was up before Marullo last week for a hearing on his request for release on grounds that he had been denied his right to a speedy trial. It is hard to hold a hearing when the petitioner cannot manage a coherent response, and that was the sad condition in which Turner presented himself. Indeed, maybe Turner couldn’t be said to have presented himself at all, because he wouldn’t have made it if deputies hadn’t been there to hold him up.

This was no isolated lapse. Turner was in similar shape for two earlier hearings, and Marullo’s patience was wearing thin. “How does he come in all loaded like this? Look at him there. How can I do anything with this man?” Marullo asked medical staff from the jail.

Nobody knew how Turner managed to get so loaded, but then nobody at the jail, from Gusman on down, ever knows anything. When the jailhouse videos surfaced, causing a national sensation, Gusman testified he had little idea what was in them, although they had sat in his safe for four years.

Turner has measured his life in drug busts and is thus adept at finding a supplier, whether he is in or out of jail. It cannot be possible to remain permanently high behind bars without a helpful screw, and Turner evidently told a deputy in court that he is indeed blessed in that regard.

That was perhaps somewhat indiscreet on Turner’s part, but he wasn’t at his most lucid. It’s probably been a while since he was.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.