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2nd ex-La. corrections officer set to plead guilty in 2014 death of inmate

Debra Becnel was one of four St. Bernard deputies charged with deprivation of civil rights under color of law following the death of 19-year-old inmate Nimali Henry

By Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune

NEW ORLEANS — A second former correctional officer at the St. Bernard Parish jail is set to plead guilty in federal court next month in connection with the 2014 death of a 19-year-old inmate, marking the latest twist in a case that produced a 2018 mistrial after another of the defendants apparently attempted suicide.

Debra Becnel is tentatively set to appear at a change of plea hearing on the afternoon of Jan. 7, according to court records. Becnel had previously pleaded not guilty, though she is prepared to reverse that plea as part of a deal with prosecutors, according to a court filing.

Neither the government nor Becnel’s side have detailed the terms of that agreement. But it almost certainly involves her cooperation with prosecutors in return for as much leniency as possible in a case which allows a maximum punishment of life imprisonment for anyone who is convicted.

Becnel was one of four St. Bernard deputies charged with deprivation of civil rights under color of law following the death of inmate Nimali Henry. Becnel, Timothy Williams, Lisa Vaccarella and Andre Dominick were all accused of withholding proper medication and treatment from Henry, who was suffering from thrombocytopenic purpura, or TTP, a rare disorder that causes clots to form in small blood vessels around the body.

Henry required medication for the life-threatening condition, and she spent 10 days in custody at the jail before dying inside an isolation cell on April 1, 2014.

Prosecutors also charged the four jail staffers with lying to federal investigators during a lengthy investigation into Henry’s death.

Williams pleaded guilty to the case in September 2018 under a deal that appears to be at least similar to the one which Becnel has reached. He awaits sentencing.

The trial of Vaccarella, Dominick and Becnel got underway two months later in front of U.S. District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle.

However, after four days of testimony from government witnesses, Dominick shot himself in his chest.

The former captain and medical officer survived his self-inflicted wound after being taken to a hospital. But Lemelle declared a mistrial after attorneys for Vaccarella and Becnel argued that the apparent suicide attempt might improperly influence jurors.

Lemelle had scheduled a new trial for the three beginning Jan. 21. Yet Dominick’s attorney has asked Lemelle to push back that start date, saying Dominick would not be fully recovered from an unspecified recent medical procedure.

Prior to the setting of Becnel’s change of plea hearing, Dominick had also requested that he be retried separately from his two former subordinates, arguing that his co-defendants’ defenses would be antagonistic to his.

Lemelle may rule on those requests at the same Jan. 7 court hearing where Becnel is expected to plead guilty.

During the aborted trial last year, Assistant U.S Attorney Chandra Menon accused Becnel of helping Vaccarella and Williams move Henry to a barren holding cell inmates had nicknamed “the birdcage,” where Henry’s pleas for help were ignored as she became fatally ill.

A fellow inmate of Henry testified that she was told by Becnel that nothing was wrong with Henry — that Henry had “just messed on herself” and was likely detoxing, though the inmate claimed to know that Henry didn’t use street drugs.

In turn, Becnel’s attorney, Guy Wall, argued that his client had taken her concerns about Henry’s health to her superiors, but the higher-ups took no action.


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