Family settles over inmate death at Angola

A $24,000 settlement was reached Wednesday in a lawsuit that accused two now-former Louisiana State Penitentiary guards of trying to cover up an inmate’s 2007 strangulation death.

The wrongful death suit also alleged the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections was responsible for Jonathan Stevenson’s death.

“It wasn’t about money,” said Ralph Fletcher, who represents Stevenson’s two children, outside state District Judge Wilson Fields’ courtroom. “They wanted someone to take a stand and say this was a homicide. It was a homicide — no doubt.”

Jack Whitehead Jr., an attorney for the department, said it would have cost the state more to defend the suit than to settle it.

“We admit no liability whatsoever,” he added.

Stevenson, 34, who was serving a 59½-year term as a habitual offender from East Baton Rouge Parish, was found hanging in his one-man cell at Angola’s Camp J on Jan. 8, 2007.

The West Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office investigated and reported that two guards — Calvin Sheppard, of Baker, and Earnest Dennis, of Woodville, Miss. — found Stevenson hanging in his cell but did not report that to prison hospital staff who later determined he died of natural causes.

In February 2007, the West Feliciana Parish coroner and sheriff concluded Stevenson committed suicide.

An autopsy by Dr. Alfredo Suarez, who was at LSU Earl K. Long Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, found that Stevenson died of asphyxia, likely caused by strangulation with an extension cord.

The lawsuit says the guards then changed their stories to say Stevenson hanged himself with a bedsheet.

Sheppard, a former security sergeant, pleaded guilty in January 2008 to filing a false public record, was given a suspended three-year prison sentence and put on probation for three years. He was booked on charges of obstruction of justice, malfeasance in office and filing false public records.

Dennis, a former security officer, pleaded no contest in September 2007 to filing false public records and also received a suspended three-year term and three years of probation. He also was originally booked on the same charges as Sheppard.

Both men were fined and ordered to perform community service work.