Family members of U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. William Goetzee pleaded Friday morning for a judge to put a former Orleans Parish Sheriff’s deputy in prison for enabling Goetzee to commit suicide while in jail.
Instead, former jailer William Thompson got five years of probation and 200 hours of community service.
Goetzee was arrested in August 2011 after he tried to grab a federal officer’s gun outside the Hale Boggs Federal Building and said he wanted to kill himself.
The 48-year-old man from LaPlace was placed on suicide watch at the jail under Thompson’s observation. But Thompson left his post for up to three hours, and Goetzee suffocated himself by swallowing toilet paper.
The family was “shocked” that Thompson will not go to prison, said Mary Howell, a lawyer representing Goetzee’s family in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Thompson, Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and others.
Such punishment, Howell said, “sends the message that this is not a big deal.”
Family members urged Chief Criminal District Court Judge Camille Buras to issue a sentence that would send a message regarding the systemic problems at the jail, which is under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice for mistreatment of prisoners.
“If the deaths at the jail are going to stop, it will only be because the people who work there truly understand that there are serious consequences for their actions,” said Margaret Nagle, Goetzee’s sister. “Obviously, Mr. Thompson did not believe that or he wouldn’t have done what he did.”
Family members made it clear that they blamed Thompson for Goetzee’s suicide.
“He destroyed our lives, too,” Nagle said. “All the things in life that matter are gone because he made a conscious decision to abandon his post.
“This disregard for the lives of people being held at the jail must stop, now. It can’t wait until the next jail death, or the next one after that. I do not understand why the people who have the power to stop this barbaric treatment of human beings in the jail allow it to continue.”
Civil-rights attorney Liz Cumming, who frequently handles cases involving the Sheriff’s Office, said 37 people have died at the prison since January 2006, including six suicides.
Nagle said she spoke with Goetzee on the day he was arrested and urged his fiancee to take him to a hospital.
“If I had known then what I know now about the availability of mental health services in New Orleans, I would have flown down immediately and taken Billy back to New Jersey to receive proper mental health and medical health care,” she said. “I had no idea those services were so lacking.”
Family members expressed frustration that they weren’t informed about what was happening to Goetzee in the six days between his arrest and his death, and that they’ve never heard from the Sheriff’s Office about what happened.
A spokesman for Gusman did not return a request for comment.
Before he was sentenced, Thompson offered a short statement: “I’m sorry for my actions. I’ve taken responsibility for them. And I apologize to the entire Goetzee family and extended family. And that’s it.”
In sentencing Thompson, Buras noted that he did not have a previous criminal record, and that additional conditions could be imposed on his probation.