Grand jury indicts former La. police officer on manslaughter charge in suspect’s Taser death

Last update: August 13, 2008 – 7:49 PM

NEW ORLEANS – A former police officer accused of repeatedly jolting a handcuffed man with a Taser before he died was indicted on a manslaughter charge Wednesday by a grand jury in central Louisiana.

The Winn Parish grand jury also indicted former Winnfield police officer Scott Nugent on a charge of malfeasance in office stemming from the Jan. 17 death of Baron Pikes, 21.

Pikes was shocked nine times with a 50,000-volt Taser as he was arrested on a drug possession warrant in January, authorities said. Winn Parish District Attorney Chris Nevils said Nugent broke the law when he “unnecessarily” used the Taser on Pikes multiple times and failed to get him medical attention “when it was apparent he needed it.”

“In a civilized society, abuse by those who are given great authority cannot be tolerated,” Nevils said in a statement.

Nugent, who is scheduled to be arraigned Aug. 21, faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted of the manslaughter charge. The malfeasance charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Nugent was fired but is appealing his dismissal. Phillip Terrell, Nugent’s lawyer, has said his client followed department protocols and didn’t use excessive force. Terrell didn’t immediately return a call for comment Wednesday evening.

Carol Powell Lexing, a lawyer for Pikes’ family, called the indictments “just one step toward justice.”

Anger over Pikes’ death has threatened to inflame racial tensions in Winnfield, where the population of roughly 5,800 is evenly divided between black and white residents. Pikes was black; Nugent is white.

The episode also has drawn comparisons to the so-called “Jena Six” case, which thrust a neighboring city in the national spotlight.

Winnfield is about 40 miles northwest of Jena, the site of a massive civil rights protest last year. Thousands of demonstrators gathered there to protest criminal cases against six black teenagers charged with beating a white student at a high school.

State Sen. Gerald Long, a Winnfield native and third cousin of legendary former Gov. Huey Long, expressed confidence that community leaders won’t allow the fallout from Pikes’ death to divide the city along racial lines.

“We pray that it will not become a spectacle comparable to what took place in Jena,” Long said. “Is it an explosive situation that can create a backlash? Sure, but that’s not what I see.”

Lawrence Spikes, a minister who ran unsuccessful campaigns for mayor of Winnfield in 2002 and 2006, said Pikes’ death reinforces his view that abuse of power is a persistent problem in the city.

“This has been going on for a while,” said Spikes, who is black. “It’s not just blacks being abused. It’s whites being abused, too.”

On Monday, the mother of Pikes’ 4-year-old son filed a wrongful-death suit in federal court against city officials, Nugent and Taser International Inc. The suit accuses city officials of civil rights violations in Pikes’ death.

 

TRIBUNE UPDATE

Former cop indicted in Taser death in Louisiana

NEW ORLEANS – Ruling in a racially explosive case that some forensic experts have described as police torture, a grand jury in the small Louisiana town of Winnfield indicted a white police officer Wednesday on charges of manslaughter and official malfeasance for repeatedly shocking a handcuffed black suspect with a Taser device, resulting in the man’s death due to cardiac arrest.

After two days of closed testimony, Winn Parish District Atty. Chris Nevils announced that the grand jury had indicted Scott Nugent, 21, for the death in January of Baron “Scooter” Pikes, 21, while in police custody. Two other Winnfield police officers who were present during the incident were not charged.

Nugent, who was fired from the police force in May, could face up to 45 years in prison if convicted on the charges. He surrendered to sheriff’s deputies immediately after the indictment was issued, a spokesman for Nevils said, and a $45,000 bond was set.

“It is our intention to show at trial that Mr. Nugent caused the death of Baron Pikes by ‘Tasing’ him multiple times, unnecessarily and in violation of Louisiana law, and by failing to get him medical attention when it was apparent he needed it,” Nevils said in a statement. “In a civilized society, abuse by those who are given great authority cannot be tolerated.”

Nugent’s attorney has said previously that his client was following police procedures during Pikes’ arrest.

Pikes, wanted on a drug possession warrant, was apprehended and handcuffed Jan. 17 after a foot chase. Although Nugent’s police report of the incident stated that Pikes did not resist or struggle after being handcuffed, the officer administered nine 50,000-volt Taser shocks to Pikes’ body after he was slow to respond to Nugent’s order to stand up.

Witnesses said Pikes pleaded with Nugent to stop Tasering him. But within 39 minutes after he was first subdued, Pikes was dead.

Winnfield police claimed that Pikes told them during the incident that he suffered from asthma and was high on PCP and crack cocaine. But Winn Parish Coroner Dr. Randolph Williams found no evidence of such drugs in Pikes’ system or any sign that he suffered from asthma. He ruled Pikes’ death a homicide and noted that Pikes was unconscious when the last two Taser shocks were administered, after he had been loaded into a squad car and delivered to the police station.

Both Williams and Dr. Michael Baden, a nationally prominent forensic pathologist who reviewed the case, said the incident “could be considered to be torture.”

The Pikes’ case, first recounted in the Tribune in July, aroused fears of a cover-up among family members and civil rights groups because Winnfield, the birthplace of Louisiana Govs. Huey and Earl Long, has a long history of political corruption.

Nevils’ predecessor as district attorney committed suicide amid allegations that he had skimmed $200,000 from his office accounts and demanded payoffs from criminal suspects. The former police chief, who was Nugent’s father, also killed himself, after losing a close election campaign marred by fraud allegations. The current police chief was convicted of drug possession as a young man and was pardoned by former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards, who is now serving a federal prison sentence for corruption while in office.

Earlier this week, the mother of Pikes’ 4-year-old son filed a wrongful-death suit in federal court against Nugent, Winnfield city officials and Taser International Inc. The suit accuses city officials of civil rights violations in Pikes’ death.

hwitt@tribune.com

Former Winnfield police officer indicted on manslaughter, malfeasance charges

Town Talk staff • August 13, 2008

A Winn Parish grand jury today indicted former Winnfield Police Officer Scott Nugent on charges of manslaughter and malfeasance in connection with the death of a Winnfield man who was shot nine times with a Taser stun gun, officials said.

The grand jury met Tuesday and today to consider the case against Nugent in the Jan. 17 death of Baron “Scooter” Pikes. The death was ruled a homicide by the Winn Parish coroner.

Pikes died after he was shot with a Taser by Nugent. Pikes was shot nine times within 14 minutes, according to police reports.

Nugent was suspended and then fired from the police force. He is appealing the termination.

Winn Parish Coroner Dr. Randy Williams has said Pikes was handcuffed while being shot with the Taser and did not have PCP or cocaine in his system as officers alleged.

Williams said Pikes might have already died before the last two zaps with the Taser. Pikes died of cardiac arrest.

The family of Pikes filed a wrongful-death lawsuit Monday against not only Nugent but the city of Winnfield, the mayor, City Council, police chief and other officers on the force, in addition to Taser International Inc.

The lawsuit alleges civil rights violations. It was filed by Latrina Thomas, the mother of Pikes’ 4-year-old son.

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