A campaign of violence meted out by a squad of Iberia Parish drug deputies landed many of them in the federal pen and left the fate of Sheriff Louis Ackal in the hands of a jury, which acquitted him on civil rights charges.
Now, two years later, the scandal has resulted in convictions being dissolved for 18 people who were arrested, charged and in some cases imprisoned based on evidence drummed up by the disgraced deputies, legal advocates say.
Attorneys for the St. Mary Project, an initiative formed by private and nonprofit defense lawyers in the wake of the Iberia Parish scandal, on Monday announced the results of their work.
The group, which includes nonprofits such as the Promise of Justice Initiative and the MacArthur Justice Center, reviewed about 500 Iberia Parish cases and filed motions earlier this year to vacate convictions and sentences against 19 people.
Bofill “Bo” Duhe, the district attorney for Iberia, St. Mary and St. Martin parishes, agreed not to fight 17 of those motions. A judge granted another one, and the last one remains pending. All told, the 18 cleared defendants had served several decades of prison time on sketchy convictions, according to advocates.
The dubious arrests took place as recently as 2015 and as far back as 2008, when Ackal took office. Nearly all of the dismissed convictions came by way of guilty pleas. All but one, a burglary rap, involved a drug arrest.
The review followed an FBI investigation that led to guilty pleas from nearly a dozen former deputies for civil rights offenses. Several of them admitted to a free-swinging culture in which they beat up jail inmates and residents on the streets of New Iberia. They ran wild for years, often targeting black people and beating some just for sport, deputies testified.
Ackal, the accused ringleader, stood trial in Shreveport in late 2016. He claimed the deputies all were lying and went free. But the investigation cast doubt over the legitimacy of hundreds of arrests those deputies made over the years. Some had admitted fabricating police reports or lying in depositions to hide the abuse.
Along with those 18 tossed convictions, Duhe said he scrapped 90 additional cases that were pending when the scandal erupted.
Mark Cunningham, a partner in the Jones Walker law firm and a past president of the Louisiana State Bar Association, led the project and praised Duhe for opening his files and assigning staff to review the cases.
“We must hold accountable anyone who abuses his authority and help those who have been victimized and wrongly accused,” said Nishi Kumar, an attorney with the Promise of Justice Initiative. “Many of our clients have been claiming their innocence for years.”
Mercedes Montagnes, executive director of the Promise of Justice Initiative, also cautioned that the review may be incomplete.
“We believe that there are likely other people who are innocent of the crimes they were convicted of, or pled guilty to,” she said, “but we lack the resources to conduct the necessary investigation to prove it.”
Ackal, 75, remains in office.