ST BERNARD, La. — Over two days and four heartbreaking sentencing hearings, the family of Nimali Henry shared their grief, nightmares and depression. They asked the judge for prison time for the four ex-deputies who neglected the 19-year’s pleas for help as she deteriorated and died of a treatable disease inside the St. Bernard Parish Jail.
The families of the four defendants asked for leniency. They told about past acts of kindness and sacrifice by the former jailers, a stark contrast to their confessed criminal neglect that led to Henry’s death.
Their attorneys asked for probation, or home incarceration, or even just a lighter sentence than federal guidelines suggested for the crimes they committed seven years ago.
By the time the final hearing wrapped up late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle had decided on a middle path: prison time for all the defendants, but nowhere close to the maximum they could have received.
In the final sentencing on Thursday, the jail’s former medical director Andre Dominick, who held the rank of captain, was given five years for violating Henry’s civil rights. Dominick, 60, was in a wheelchair, disabled after an unsuccessful suicide attempt that cut short a trial in the case in 2018.
Defendant Timothy Williams had pleaded guilty by the time of the trial, but after four days of testimony in November 2018, Dominick shot himself in the chest. Before a new trial was scheduled, all three defendants pleaded guilty. Because he’s been locked up since the aborted trial, Dominick could be released in about three years.
Williams, 39, a former corporal who was the first to plead guilty, was sentenced earlier in the day on the same charge to 4 years and 9 months. Chief Public Defender Claude Kelly made a rare appearance, arguing, “I don’t see a bad bone in Timothy’s body. I think he succumbed to the culture of that jail.”
When Lemelle rejected the request for leniency, Kelly objected. Strongly.
“Heaven help Mr. Williams serving 57 months in jail,” he protested.
Debra Becnel, 60, was sentenced to three months in prison after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about failing to adequately report the Henry’s grave medical condition.
After days of visible suffering, some of it caught on the jail’s surveillance cameras, Henry died alone and naked, passed out on a concrete floor on April 1, 2014.
“I also have nightmares about this,” Becnel said in court. “I put trust in my upper rank that they would take care of her and they didn’t…I am so sorry for everything. I live with this daily.”
Lisa Vaccarella, 58, was sentenced to 21 months after pleading to lying to the FBI and misprision, or concealing a felony. In her plea agreement documents, Vaccarella admitted that she “observed Henry in the isolation cell, lying unclothed face-down on the floor, breathing heavily.”
Vaccarella told the court, “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about Nimali…She should not have died.”
Lemelle handed down the sentences after tearful testimony from members of Henry’s family.
“My family is broken,” said Deshawna Henry, Nimali’s sister. “My family is distraught. My family is in pain.”
Henry was jailed in March 2014 after getting into an altercation as she tried to retrieve her four-month-old daughter, Nilijah, from the child’s father. Despite facing relatively minor charges of simple battery, disturbing the peace and unauthorized entry, her bail was set at $25,000.
A WWL-TV investigation examined dozens of cases with similar charges and found Henry’s bail amount – set by Judge Jeanne Juneau – was far higher than even cases with more serious charges, and far more than her family could afford.
Deputies repeatedly denied Henry proper medical attention despite her pleas for help and dire warnings from other inmates. She died after 10 days in the jail, a stretch that her sister described as “torture.”
“Her last days horrify me because her death was so cruel,” Deshawna said.
“Why? Why did you do that to her?” asked Nimali’s grandmother Prisca Anslem, “All she wanted was to hold her baby.”
Jah-Keim Isidore, Nimali’s younger brother, testified that his sister’s death sent him into a tailspin of grief and mental breakdowns. In his prepared statement from the witness stand on Wednesday, he ironically “thanked” Becnel and Vaccarella “for dissolving all my dreams with my family…I hope you achieved the ecstasy you were seeking watching my sister suffer.”
But some of Isidore’s sentiments shifted by the time Dominick was sentenced. At his hearing, it was revealed that Dominick’s wife had passed away during the case, and that his own health problems had mounted.
Just before Dominick could be wheeled from the courtroom, Isidore approached Dominick’s family. He shook their hands and offered words of peace, then turned to Dominick and embraced him.
“I’m forgiving him,” said the young man, who was in middle school when his sister died and is now in the Marines. “It’s just a weight off my shoulders. All that pent up anger and hatred that I had. It was such a relief.”
St. Bernard Sheriff Jimmy Pohlmann has been silent about the case since the original investigation. His office said he could not comment due to a pending civil lawsuit filed by the family of Nilijah’s father.
Despite the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the paternal family, Henry’s family told that court that they have never been given a chance to meet Nilijah. She recently turned seven.