La. CO admits lying to FBI agents about inmate's death

Debra Becnel pleaded guilty in the 2014 death of an inmate suffering from a rare blood disorder

Matt Sledge
The Times-Picayune

NEW ORLEANS — A second correctional officer who faced charges in the 2014 death of a 19-year-old St. Bernard Parish jail inmate pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court.

Debra Becnel pleaded guilty to one felony count of lying to FBI agents when she claimed that Nimali Henry hadn’t asked her for treatment for thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disorder, days before Henry died of the disease's effects.

Becnel shook as she stood at a podium in front of U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle. But she answered with a clear “guilty” as the judge asked her how she was pleading.

As part of a plea agreement, federal prosecutors dismissed a separate charge of deprivation of rights under color of law.

Becnel faces up to five years in prison at an April 22 sentencing.

Prosecutors charged four guards in connection with the April 1, 2014, death of Henry, who had been booked on charges of disturbing the peace, simple battery and unauthorized entry.

Henry couldn’t post the $25,000 bail set for her. Over 10 days of incarceration, she repeatedly told other inmates and guards that she needed medication for her rare condition, according to testimony at a trial in November 2018.

That trial was halted after one of Becnel’s co-defendants attempted suicide.

Investigators said Henry’s pleas for help went unheeded. She was placed in an isolation cell instead of given medication, and she died from a blood clot.

Becnel's attorney, Guy Wall, argued at the aborted trial that his client had tried to warn her supervisors about the blood condition. But one inmate claimed she tried and failed to convince Becnel that Henry needed help.

According to the inmate, Becnel said Henry was “trying to do anything and everything to get out of jail."

Another guard, Cpl. Timothy Williams, pleaded guilty in September 2018 and awaits sentencing.

Meanwhile, two more correctional officers, Capt. Andre Dominick and Deputy Lisa Vaccarella, are set to go on trial again on Jan. 21.

Dominick shot himself in the torso in the middle of the first attempt at a trial, leading Lemelle to declare a mistrial. The judge also ordered Dominick, who had been free on bail, to be jailed ahead of a new trial.

Dominick is hospitalized at University Medical Center with an “undetermined” long-term prognosis, according to a Thursday court filing from his attorney, Paul Fleming. The filing did not specify Dominick's condition.

The judge denied a motion from Dominick’s attorney asking for a separate trial from Vaccarella.

Lemelle deferred ruling on a motion from Dominick to delay the trial, saying he needed more information on Dominick's medical condition.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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