NEW ORLEANS — An Orleans Parish grand jury late Thursday handed up an indictment against 14 men recorded in a video that showed them using drugs, drinking beers they fished from a cooler and flashing a loaded gun inside a jail cell at the Orleans Parish jail’s since-closed House of Detention.
The videos were recorded during the summer of 2009. hey were unknown to the public — and prosecutors — until they were screened in April during a court hearing for a pending consent decree for the jail.
The nine-count indictment is for contraband, according to court documents.
Chris Bowman, a spokesman for District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, said the office began its investigation in mid-April, as soon as his office became aware of the evidence. Cannizzaro criticized Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman at the time for not turning the evidence over to his office earlier.
Though the videos raised questions about how Gusman operates the jail — as well as what he did upon discovering the videos in 2009 — Gusman said Friday that he was “pleased with the results” of the district attorney’s investigation.
“My office cooperated fully with the district attorney on this investigation,” Gusman said in a prepared statement. “Our office will continue to work with the DA to pursue prosecution of these individuals to the fullest extent of the law.”
Gusman testified last month that Sheriff’s Office investigators had done a full probe after they got hold of the videos in 2009, even strip-searching inmates, but found no evidence of contraband. Cannizzaro, however, told The Times-Picayune last month that he thought the videos themselves were “very compelling evidence,” adding: “The picture is worth a thousand words.”
After the Sheriff’s Office obtained the videos, they were locked in a safe at the Sheriff’s Office. They were only released at the demand of attorneys representing the city in discussions about the jail consent decree.
Though the videos clearly show faces, they are four years old, and only two of the 14 inmates are in the sheriff’s custody anymore. Bowman declined to say how the inmates were identified, saying that the investigation remains open.
“It was carefully investigated,” he said.
One of the videos shows inmates smoking, snorting and shooting up what appears to be heroin and other drugs, while others drink beer. One inmate chats on a cellphone, and another empties bullets from a loaded handgun. The second video showed a man who said he was an inmate spending a night wandering Bourbon Street, chatting up police officers and canoodling with strippers.
Lawyer Jason Williams, whose firm represents Arthur Johnson, an inmate prominently featured in that video, is skeptical of the case. He says that while the videos may make for compelling viewing for a jury, they don’t really prove anything: What’s the proof, for instance, that the drugs the inmates appear to be taking are actually drugs?
“All they’ve got is the videos,” Williams said. “There is no other evidence. They have to pray it lands in a (court) section where you don’t have to follow the rules and lay a foundation. It’s really questionable unless there’s some other evidence. It’s also questionable that no deputies are charged.”
Conditions at the jail have led to lawsuits and the pending consent decree. That, in turn, has led to a contentious dispute between Gusman and Mayor Mitch Landrieu about the cost of implementing the consent decree.
Landrieu has accused the Justice Department of leaving the city out of negotiations and complained that the price tag — which could be as much as $110 million over five years — could force layoffs of city employees and cuts to other services.
Gusman has countered that the city has underfunded its jail. While he has disputed that conditions at the complex are unconstitutional, he agreed to sign the consent decree anyhow, saying it would result in a better operation.
Though questions have been raised about how the men in the videos were seemingly able to come and go at will, and smuggle so many banned items in with them, none of those named in the indictment is a Sheriff’s Office employee.
Bowman said warrants have been issued for all 14 men but declined to say if more people will be brought up on charges.
The man who was seen strolling down Bourbon has previously been identified as Arthur Johnson.
He is charged in the indictment with having cash, a cellphone and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. Johnson is already serving a 10-year state prison sentence for possession of heroin.
The indictment also alleges:
A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Corrections said Lewis is in that agency’s custody. His charges were not immediately available, but he is set for supervised release today, according to the DOC.
Jones is in the DOC’s custody. His charges were not immediately available.
Raymond is back in the sheriff’s custody after being arrested Sept. 17, 2012, for parole violation and possession of a firearm or weapon by a felon, according to Sheriff’s Office records.
Summers was arrested again on July 29, 2010, and remained behind bars for second-degree murder, attempted second-degree murder and obstruction of justice, among other charges, according to Sheriff’s Office records.
Jenkins is in the custody of the DOC, according to the agency’s spokeswoman.
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