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Why did Nimali Henry die in jail?

It's hard to imagine the suffering that Nimali Henry endured during the last 10 days of her life, locked in isolation in the St. Bernard Parish jail, slowly dying of a rare disease that led to internal bleeding and, ultimately, catastrophic organ failure.

WWL Staff

CHALMETTE, La. -- It's hard to imagine the suffering that Nimali Henry endured during the last 10 days of her life, locked in isolation in the St. Bernard Parish jail, slowly dying of a rare disease that led to internal bleeding and, ultimately, catastrophic organ failure.

Henry, a 19-year-old high school student, was arrested in what seemed like a relatively minor domestic dust-up in which she was trying to retrieve her four-month-old child after Henry was released from a hospital stay.

The coroner's office determined that Henry's death in April 2014 was due to natural causes, perhaps one of the reasons the case received scant public attention directly afterward. But all that changed in December, when four St. Bernard Parish deputies were indicted in her death, accused of denying Henry proper medical care and then lying to the FBI about the case.

Beyond the indictment, handled directly by the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., Henry's family is now voicing deeper concerns about the death of their loved one.

Breaking a long silence in a series of exclusive interviews with WWL-TV, the family is openly questioning the high bail that kept them from getting Henry out of jail, as well as whether she should have even been arrested in the first place.

"It hurts. And I feel betrayed," her sister Deshawna Henry said. "I can only imagine how my sister felt being left there. And to be watched as her life just faded away. Faded away. And all she ever wanted to do is get her baby, which was within her rights as a mother."

 

To support their position, family members provided cell phone video that Henry shot during a portion of the encounter that landed her in jail. The video, exclusively obtained by WWL-TV, shows Henry in a tense conversation with, Nicholas Conners, the father of the child, and Chelsea Lefebvre, the alleged victim in the case.

In a police report, Deputy Dustin Gould states that Conners "observed Ms. Henry pushing Ms. Lefebvre" after Henry forced her way into a trailer where Conners and Lefebvre were staying. That was the basis for Henry's arrest on two misdemeanors, simple battery and disturbing the peace, and a felony, unauthorized entry into an inhabited dwelling.

The video captures the confrontation moments later in front of the trailer. In the grainy footage, Conners is seen on a cell phone calling for police help. Henry and Lefebvre are seen exchanging angry words, some of them in apparent contradiction to the account in the police report.

"Nicholas gave her the address," the family's attorney, Quiana Hunt, said. "That's very significant, because you can't have an unauthorized entry with consent. She had no idea she wasn't supposed to come there. Just the opposite. He gave her the address."

The video supports that claim. In the exchange, Lefebvre confirms that Henry was given the address by Conners, although it came with a warning:

 

"I told him, tell her, because I don't care. If she came here, we're going to have problems," Lefebvre is heard saying the video.

Henry was given a ride to Lefebvre's home by a friend. The police report states that Henry's trip was "an attempt to see the child" and that "she entered the residence in the attempt to visit her child," a characterization that the Hunt and family said is flat-out wrong.

"When she was released, she immediately contacted Nicholas," Hunt said. "She was going to get her child. ‘Where is my child? I want my child.' That was her goal."

That account also is supported in the video, with Henry saying: "Well, I have every right to have my baby. That's my daughter. You have no right to keep her away from me."

Based on the video, Hunt also questions who the aggressor is. The last portion of the video before it goes blank is this exchange between the two women:

Lefebvre: "I pushed you. And what you did?"

Henry: "I kept jumping at you, but he kept holding me back. The entire time. So if you want to go, go right now. If you want to go, come right now."

Lefebvre: "You're the one who wants to buck up to me. You come into my house."

Henry: "You keep saying you're so big and bad. Then buck up to me. Buck up to me."

Lefebvre: "I will."

With those final words before the video ends, Lefebvre is seen charging at Henry, although it is unclear what happens next. By the time police arrive, Henry had left the scene with her friend, and was picked up by deputies a short time later.

Full video of the encounter

"Why was she arrested?" Hunt asks "Why wasn't the person who attacked her arrested? At the very least, pick up everybody and question everybody involved."  

The situation quickly went from bad to worse. When Henry was taken to court, Judge Jeanne Juneau set bail at $25,000, an amount the family could not afford.

WWL-TV compared Henry's bail to that of other suspects arrested for similar charges, as well as more serious ones. Nearly a year's worth of court records revealed that the overwhelming majority of case saw bail set at a fraction of the amount that kept Henry locked up.

The records show that bail in most domestic disturbances case with a simple battery is set at $1,000 or less, typical of misdemeanor arrests. Even when there was the added felony of unauthorized entry, there were no cases with bail set as high as Henry's.

For example, in a March 2014 case with identical charges, plus a warrant out of Gretna, bail was set at $5,000. In another March case with the same charges, plus criminal damage to property and attempted escape, bail was set at $4,000.

But those bail amounts were set by other judges. Juneau generally sets higher bail amounts, but in cases with similar or identical charges to Henry's, even those amounts didn't come close. In August 2014, in a case with exactly the same charges, Juneau set bail at $13,500. And in another Juneau case from April, the same month Henry was arrested, a disturbing the peace charge coupled with a felony charge of aggravated battery – use of a weapon – she set bail at $10,000.

Civil rights activist Deirdre Lewis, of the New Orleans-based Justice and Beyond, said the bail set for Henry was unconscionable.

"Twenty-five thousand? You do that for people who have done something really serious, if she had gone there with a gun or something like that," Lewis said. "But for a mother trying to get her child, that was her right as a parent."

Pat Bryant, director of Justice and Beyond, said members of his organization are outraged.

"It makes no sense that this child would be deprived of her freedom," he said. "The freedom to nurture her child after getting out of the hospital. It makes no sense. Why would you do that to somebody?"

Bryant said his group is planning to attend future court hearings for the four indicted deputies.

The indictment accuses four deputies of ignoring Henry's grave medical condition and watching her deteriorate. Capt. Andre Dominick, Corporal Timothy Williams and deputies Debra Becnel and Lisa Vacarella are also charged with lying to the FBI. In one count, Vacarella is accused of telling agents she saw Henry walking just fine, when she actually watched Henry collapse and then closed the door on her, leaving her her lying on the floor.

"They knew. They ignored her and they watched her die," her aunt Shea Abraham said.

During Henry's 10 days in jail, her sister Deshawna and other family members said they tried every day to get the attention of deputies and court officials, desperate to get Henry the medicine that could have saved her life. Just two months earlier, Henry had been diagnosed with a life-threatening blood disorder known as TTP - thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura - which requires special medication.

But their pleas were ignored. On April 1, deputies told them that Nimali was dead.

"I rode my bike back and forth trying to let St. Bernard know, St. Bernard Prison know, that my sister was very ill," Deshawna Henry said. "She did not need to be there. She needed medical attention."

We found additional information that raises further concerns over Henry's arrest. It turns out that this wasn't the first physical confrontation involving Nicholas Conners in which deputies were called.

In October 2013 when Henry was 33-weeks pregnant, Henry called the police on Conners, saying he forcefully grabbed her and broke her phone. According to a police report of the incident, Conners was not arrested. Instead, Henry was told to get a restraining order.

And months after Henry's death, Chelsea Lefebvre called police on Conners for domestic violence. Again, Conners was not arrest, according to the police report.

St. Bernard Sheriff Jimmy Pohlmann declined to comment. In addition to the federal civil rights charges against his deputies, Pohlmann and the sheriff's office have been sued by Conners on behalf of baby Nilijah.

"Nimali, as we all know, received injustice after injustice after injustice. We know that she died a horrible death. We know that she suffered," Hunt said.

Nimali Henry is buried in a remote cemetery in Plaquemines Parish. The family said they had little choice. At the time, they said they were devastated, overwhelmed and unable to afford a proper burial, so they accepted a donation of the faraway plot.

And if not for the Justice Department stepping in with indictments, Nimali Henry might be forgotten outside of her grieving family.

The indicted deputies remain suspended with pay pending their trial, which is scheduled for July 11.

Attorneys for all but one of the deputies declined to comment on the case. Debra Becnel's attorney, Guy Wall, issued this statement:

"Debra Becnel is a 55 year old mother of three with a high school education.  She has lived in the greater New Orleans area all of her life. Ms. Becnel denies the United States government's allegations against her in the indictment.  Ms. Becnel urges anyone with information about Ms. Henry's death, her medical condition, or potential witnesses to contact B&W Investigations at 504-583-9423 or 504-487-5022."

The attorney for Nicholas Conners, Greg Rome, also issued a written statement:

"We are grateful to the FBI and the U.S. Justice Department for their dedication and hard work in bringing to light what happened to Nimali. Our focus now is on Nilijah, who just made two years old and who will grow up without her mother. We plan to continue pursuing the civil litigation on Nilijah's behalf and to seek justice for both Nimali and Nilijah."

Chelsea Lefebvre could not be reached.