Oscar Fuselier was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The 58-year-old disabled war veteran and lifelong New Orleans-area resident was arrested in Orleans Parish on the afternoon of July 25 for missing a traffic court date in Jefferson Parish. The next night, Fuselier found himself sweating with five other inmates in a holding cell at Orleans Parish Prison.
According to an Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff investigator, another inmate, 18-year-old armed robbery suspect Richard Jackson, started cursing at Fuselier for standing in front of a circulating fan that was outside the cell. Jackson then physically attacked Fuselier, raining down two or three punches and kicking the prostrate and defenseless Fuselier before deputies were able to stop the assault.
The investigator, Capt. Mike Laughlin, says the entire altercation took only about 15 seconds, but that was 15 seconds too long for Fuselier, who was knocked unconscious and taken to University Hospital. Fuselier never regained consciousness and a few days later, doctors convinced his family to take him off life support. On Aug. 7, Fuselier died. Richard Jackson was charged with second-degree battery in connection with the incident -- officials haven't determined yet if Jackson should be charged with murder.
Those are the facts of the case.
Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman says that his office's investigation was "pretty straightforward" and that "there wasn't any dispute about it." One man beat another man to death. It's difficult to argue otherwise in the face of four eyewitnesses.
But the sheriff's inquiry didn't answer all the questions surrounding the death of Oscar Fuselier -- particularly two questions about how Gusman's office handled Fuselier in the first place:
• Why was Fuselier still in jail more than 28 hours after his arrest on a minor traffic attachment?
• Why was Fuselier, a nonviolent offender, in the same cell as Jackson, a violent offender?
Those questions, and the answers to them, give rise to yet another query: What's there to prevent this from happening again?
Gusman makes it clear that it wasn't bad luck that landed Fuselier in jail; he was a habitual offender with an extensive criminal record. Fuselier's rap sheet shows he had been arrested nine times in St. Tammany Parish, mostly on misdemeanor theft charges, but with one felony charge of simple burglary.
"He didn't happen to be there," Gusman says. "He was there because he was arrested by the New Orleans Police Department. They brought him in on a fugitive warrant."
Gusman says that's all prison personnel would have known about Fuselier when NOPD brought him in. Until they were able to contact Jefferson Parish court officials, Gusman told Gambit Weekly, deputies couldn't have known what the fugitive warrant was all about. He adds that they would have noted that Fuselier had a previous criminal record and that he needed to be held.
That's a potentially frightening prospect for people who miss court dates for traffic violations in Jefferson Parish. A warrant typically is issued for those who miss such court dates, and if they are arrested in Orleans Parish, they will remain in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), possibly housed with violent offenders, until officials are able to contact the Jefferson courts. Even scarier is the fact that, since Hurricane Katrina, OPP has had to process arrestees through Central Lock-Up, an antiquated facility. When Gusman spoke about conditions at the prison to a congressional subcommittee in April, he testified that OPP is processing up to 200 suspects a day in a facility that is designed to handle 80. The sheriff admits that the system moves slowly, which translates into those arrested spending more time in holding cells.
"That's just a fact of life," Gusman says.
For Oscar Fuselier, that extra time might have been a factor in his death. Records show that the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office faxed a letter to OPP at 10:02 a.m. on July 26, the morning after his arrest, instructing them to release Fuselier and giving him a new court date for his traffic charges. Richard Jackson was booked for armed robbery at 10:15 a.m. on July 26 and put in the cell with Fuselier and four other men. Jefferson Parish sheriff's records on Fuselier, along with corroboration from the New Orleans Police Department, also indicate that OPP personnel should have known that Fuselier's fugitive warrant was for traffic violations.
Chief Deputy Newell Normand, second in command at JPSO, says a warrant was issued for Fuselier on July 24, the day before he was picked up in Orleans Parish. Normand says that when that information was entered into the JPSO computer system, it specifically stated that the warrant was for a traffic attachment. When NOPD stopped Fuselier on July 25, they requested warrant verification from JPSO for Fuselier's alleged traffic violations. JPSO responded at 4:02 p.m. that the warrant was valid and outstanding; Fuselier was arrested.
"NOPD was fully aware that they were arresting someone on a traffic attachment," Normand says. "What happens from the arresting agency to the booking agency over there, the keeper of the jail, I don't know."
Officer Sabrina Richardson, a spokesperson for NOPD, contradicts Gusman's version of what jailers and officers would have known about Fuselier and others similarly situated. Richardson says NOPD officers do not run a suspect's previous record of arrests when he is detained; all they are concerned with are current warrants and charges, she says. "We get an NCIC (National Crime Information Center) printout stating that the warrant is valid," Richardson says. "In that case, it would have listed that it was a municipal or traffic attachment, and that's the only thing given to the jailer."
OPP booked Fuselier at 5:34 p.m. that same day and, according to Richardson, they should have been alerted to Fuselier's misdemeanor traffic charge at that time. Whatever OPP personnel knew, the office didn't notify JPSO until 6:30 a.m. the next day that "Oscar Fuselier was ready for pickup." In contrast to OPP's 12-hour lag time with Fuselier, Normand says that when JPSO has another parish's fugitive, its policy is to contact that parish "once they hit the jail." Because of jail overcrowding, JPSO does not hold people charged in Jefferson Parish with misdemeanor crimes such as traffic attachments, which is why Fuselier's release letter was sent to OPP later that morning.
Gusman says that overcrowding isn't an issue at his jail once arrestees have been processed, but that still doesn't explain why Orleans Parish holds someone on a traffic court "fugitive warrant" from a parish that would release him with a new court date.
Another difference between the Jefferson and Orleans jails is how much each is paid for housing inmates. In Jefferson, the jail gets $3.50 per day from Jefferson Parish government for each inmate. In Orleans, the price of incarceration is much higher -- the city pays OPP $23.35 per day, and federal prisoners fetch $40 a day. In Fuselier's case, because OPP didn't tell Jefferson Parish they had him until the day after his booking, the city probably paid at least $46.70 for his incarceration.
When Richard Jackson joined Fuselier in the holding cell on the morning of July 26, it wasn't under the most hospitable conditions. The two men, along with four others, were in an unair-conditioned cell with only the outside fan providing relief from the late-July heat. With no sleeping accommodations, Fuselier was probably exhausted and, by this point, possibly traumatized as well.
Denise Doll, Fuselier's sister, says that her brother was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in connection with his experiences during the Vietnam War. In the past two years, Jackson has been charged with numerous felonies -- including auto theft, aggravated battery, armed robbery with a firearm and simple battery.
Renee Lapeyrolerie, a spokesperson for Gusman's office, says OPP puts wristbands on prisoners to indicate alleged violent offenders -- and that Jackson had a wristband on when he was placed in the cell with Fuselier.
No one can say if that knowledge would have helped Fuselier. Doll and her family only know that when they arrived at the hospital on Friday, July 27, the hospital staff told them "to make some end-of-life decisions."
A few days could have made a big difference for Fuselier. Normand says that on Fridays his office sends OPP a blanket court date for anyone arrested or held over the weekend in Orleans Parish on a Jefferson Parish traffic attachment. Suspects are thus supposed to be booked, given a court date and released. Fuselier was picked up on a Wednesday, beaten to near-death the next day, and pronounced dead less than two weeks later.
Had Fuselier been arrested on the fugitive warrant in Jefferson Parish, he wouldn't even have spent time in jail.
Gusman says there is a fast-track plan for those arrested on outstanding warrants for Orleans Parish municipal or traffic offenses. Fuselier didn't qualify because he was held on an out-of-parish warrant. Orleans Parish misdemeanor fugitives are housed separately, and jail personnel try to expedite the booking process, says Gusman. The sheriff says people should understand that, as with so many other public facilities, the city's jail was damaged during Hurricane Katrina and prison officials are doing the best they can in the face of extremely trying circumstances.
"I don't think it's fair to hold us to a higher standard," Gusman says.
Doll would like to know how the investigation into her brother's death is going. She says she contacted the sheriff's office, but was told the district attorney's office was handling it. Dalton Savwoir, a spokesman for the DA's office, says that after Gambit Weekly contacted that office about Fuselier's death, prosecutors requested records of the investigation -- but they hadn't received anything by press time.
Ironically, Oscar Fuselier was well protected as he lay in his hospital bed at University Hospital. Two armed sheriff's deputies were posted outside his room. It's doubly ironic that, while Fuselier and others in the holding cell at OPP had no place to lie down and rest, the first place that Fuselier was able to lie down after his arrest wound up being his "final" resting place.
After Fuselier's attending physician at University Hospital complained to the sheriff's office, the guards were pulled off.
"It's not like he was going to get up and leave," Doll says. "He was on a ventilator."
- Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman says it's "just a fact of life" that people arrested spend more time in holding cells since Hurricane Katrina because about 200 suspects a day are processed in a facility made to accommodate 80. That extra time might have been a factor in the death of Oscar Fuselier.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman says it wasn't bad luck that landed Fuselier in jail; he was a habitual offender with an extensive criminal record and deputies couldn't have known what the fugitive warrant was about, just that he needed to be held.