Louisiana judge rules deputies used excessive force on pregnant woman

BATON ROUGE, La. -- A Louisiana judge has awarded a woman and two of her children more than $41,000 after hearing testimony that sheriff's deputies used excessive force on her when she was pregnant, shouted racial slurs and erased a cellphone video of the confrontation. The ruling is the latest in a string of legal setbacks for Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal since he took office 10 years ago.

In his ruling last week, state District Court Judge Curtis Sigur said he believes Lakitha Wright's testimony that sheriff's deputies pushed her over porch railings, threw her to the ground and pepper-sprayed her in April 2012. Wright was more than 8 months pregnant at the time.

In January, the New Iberia-based judge presided over a juryless trial for Wright's lawsuit.

The only deputy who testified denied throwing Wright to the ground or using racial epithets after responding to a neighbor's complaint about a fight between two of Wright's relatives during a family gathering. Wright is black. The races of the deputies were not immediately known.

Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal and an attorney who represented him, his office and three deputies at the trial didn't respond to phone calls seeking comment on Monday.

The ruling, signed by the judge last Monday, is the latest in a slew of legal troubles for the elected sheriff.

Lawsuits against Ackal, his office and its deputies have resulted in more than $2.8 million in payments to plaintiffs in 29 cases since Ackal took office a decade ago, according to data obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request. The payments, mostly from settlements, range from a high of $600,000 to a low of $5,525, the data shows.

Ackal and several deputies also were targets of a U.S. Justice Department civil rights investigation. In 2016, Ackal was acquitted of federal criminal charges that he ordered the beatings of parish jail prisoners and orchestrating a brazen cover-up. Ten deputies pleaded guilty to related charges.

Christopher Washington, Wright's attorney, said it's "scary" that the payouts don't seem to deter misconduct. One of the deputies named as a defendant in Wright's suit didn't show up for the trial, he noted.

"The cumulative effect of the judgments doesn't seem to slow them down," he said. "It's going to take a massive judgment against them to make a difference."

The award to Wright and her children includes $26,000 for their "emotional distress."

Deputies arrested Wright and several family members; the state attorney general's office later dropped the charges against her.

Wright testified that a deputy confiscated a cellphone she had used to record the incident. The recording had been erased when she reclaimed the phone, she said.

The judge said the force used on a pregnant woman was "unnecessary and excessive."

"It is unbelievable that this pregnant woman would be thrown to the ground in such a manner although she did not resist her arrest," he wrote.

The judge said he believed testimony that deputies used racial slurs and profanity. He also questioned whether deputies arrested Wright because she had complained about a deputy's actions or because she recorded the incident.

"Perhaps, this recording would have helped in deciding this matter," he wrote.