Gusman's court appearance turns into a spectacle

Published: Apr. 4, 2013 at 10:08 PM CDT|Updated: Apr. 11, 2013 at 10:09 PM CDT
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Sheriff Marlin Gusman leaves federal court after hours of testimony.
Sheriff Marlin Gusman leaves federal court after hours of testimony.

New Orleans, La. – Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman walked out of federal court with cameras trained on him and reporters shouting questions. Dozens of people showed up just to see Gusman testify.

Gusman had spent several hours on the witness stand and his court appearance had become a spectacle, due in large part to those riveting amateur videos shot by inmates in the prison Gusman oversees.

When asked by FOX 8 News how he think he did on the witness stand, Gusman replied, "I don't know."

Gusman also said he expected lots of tough questions from attorneys representing the City of New Orleans in the consent decree proceedings.

Even before Gusman answered his first question on the witness stand, the courtroom was already packed as dozens were anxious to see and hear Gusman first hand.

Clearly the 2009 videos, showing inmates taking heroin, handling loaded guns and even one prisoner roaming the French Quarter, helped turn Gusman's court appearance into a spectacle. The videos were released by the judge earlier this week.

Veteran defense attorney Jason Williams made a point of witnessing Gusman's testimony.

"It is a spectacle and there is no other way to describe it. The video itself was a spectacle, made a mockery of Orleans Parish. The most important part is what everyone knew and when they knew it," Williams told FOX 8 News.

"This is why I came to court," said Donna Gauthier as she clutched a picture of her late fiancee William Goetzee. He was a commander in the Coast Guard Reserves and took his life in Orleans Parish Prison, which Gusman oversees.

"Bill was placed into OPP and he was placed there for safekeeping because he wanted to hurt himself, and then six days later he was dead. He committed suicide and it's just unbelievable," she said.

Gauthier said the circumstances of his death still trouble her.  "Supposedly he swallowed toilet paper.  He was in a cell by himself, he was in a suicide smock.  I can't imagine how he got toilet paper," continued Gauthier.

Michelle Hitzman-Perdomo also had to hear Gusman's testimony for herself.  Her brother Michael Hitzman hanged himself in the prison in 2010, according to the family. His parents said he had been jailed for missing a court date.

"I came today to just see the line of questioning that they were going to go about and to see if there was going to be any kind of direct questioning as to the sheriff and his responsibility for the conditions inside the prison. I wanted to see his reaction when given the information that was presented two days ago," Hitzman-Perdomo said.

Interest in what Gusman had to say on the witness stand aside, the focus of this week's court hearing was whether U.S. District Judge Lance Africk would approve the proposed consent decree worked out between Gusman and the U.S. Justice Department. Mayor Mitch Landrieu maintains the proposed agreement is too expensive for City Hall's bank account.

"They didn't need any money... it was like changes that could have been made with no dollar amounts, just procedures.  Somebody needed to watch my loved one," said Gauthier.

She said her fiancee should not have died in a place where there are plenty of guards.

"We were planning on getting married and of course what I planned was a funeral," Gauthier said.

Judge Africk's ruling on the proposed consent decree is pending.