ANGLETON — The muffled cries of David Witt’s family members were the only noise after a surveillance video showing an altercation prosecutors say led to the 41-year-old inmate’s death played Wednesday in the 239th District courtroom of the Brazoria County Courthouse.
The footage shows a handcuffed Witt being thrown to the ground Aug. 16, 2017, at the Darrington Unit prison in Rosharon by Lou Joffrion III, 26, of Humble, who at the time was a sergeant for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. A Brazoria County grand jury indicted the former correctional officer in December 2017 on an aggravated assault charge.
Joffrion, who pleaded not guilty to the crime, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on the first-degree felony by the jury of 10 women and two men.
While the defense chose to defer its opening statement, the prosecution intends to prove the prison guard used excessive force in handling Witt, causing a lacerated liver that caused the inmate’s death, they said during Wednesday’s opening arguments.
“In the jury box, you may be tempted to figure out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy — and that concerns me, because you’ll see one guy wearing a dingy white shirt and one in a correctional officer gray uniform,” said Jack Choate of the Texas Special Prosecution Unit. “But you’re not here to judge people, you’re here to judge an act,”
Joffrion’s actions came while he and several other officers attempted to restrain Witt shortly after the prisoners were fed breakfast, said Cindy Bridges, also of the Texas Special Prosecution Unit.
Witt was transitioning from a hallway to a day room, where inmates can watch TV and socialize, about 5 a.m. the day of his death, Choate said. When told to go back to his cell, Witt acted defiantly, but not violently, Choate said.
Surveillance footage from the incident, played Wednesday in court, showed Witt pacing back and forth in the day room then taking off his shirt and pants, leaving him naked. The video showed two officers in a room with him at the time, appearing to talk calmly with Witt, who was not yet handcuffed.
“I secured him in the day room and called supervisors to let them know what was going on,” testified Olumuyiwa Opaogun, a correctional officer on duty that day. “I don’t recall him having aggression, but gestures with his hands, just disobedient and murmuring.”
Defense attorney Connie Williams of Houston questioned Opaogun about protocol when a prisoner shows signs of growing agitation and asked if inmates can be dangerous when handcuffed but not shackled.
“We are trained to place (offenders) on the wall and get somebody to come and assist so we don’t get into a physical combat,” Opaogun said. “If I need to save my life, then yes, I take them to the ground.”
Correctional officer Sgt. Sule Igris responded to the day room where officers had secured Witt, Igris said. When Joffrion entered the area, Witt again became agitated, Igris said on the stand Wednesday.
“I saw Witt’s attitude change as soon as Joffrion came in,” Igris testified. “We are trained to calm them down ... He’s known to be noncompliant but not aggressive. I told Joffrion to move out of the day room to let me deal with it.”
Joffrion did not comply with the command, Bridges said.
Security footage showed Witt move toward the exit of the day room and knock over an orange water cooler in an act of defiance. Witt was detained with handcuffs and a handful of officers arrived at that area of the prison, the prosecution said.
Surveillance video from the prison showed a handcuffed Witt being led to a detention area when he tried to pull away. At that moment, the footage shows, Joffrion grabbed the prisoner from behind, just above his knees, and lifted him off the ground. Witt landed face-first on the concrete floor.
Joffrion remained on top of him for several minutes, the video shows. Two correctional guards attempted to make Witt stand and walk down a prison hallway, surveillance footage showed.
When Witt is unable to make the walk, he is transferred to the prison’s infirmary on a gurney, security footage showed.
In response to Bridges, Igris said it was a forceful impact.
Witt was taken in an ambulance at 8:48 a.m. that morning, Angleton EMS paramedic Jeremiah Tremble testified, which is three hours after the 5:28 a.m. incident occurred, time stamps from video surveillance showed.
Bridges showed the jury a medical assessment statement from emergency room officials, which stated EMS personnel said there was an altercation with Witt on the way to the hospital.
Both Tremble and his paramedic partner, Diana Villasana, testified there was no incident with Witt during the ambulance ride. The two paramedics added that when called to the incident at the Darrington Unit, they were given no information from guards about what happened to the man.
Witt died later that day after being taken by helicopter to a hospital in Galveston, Bridges said.
Former Capt. Beverly White, who was demoted to officer and transferred out of Darrington after 15 years of service, said she would not have used the same force Joffrion displayed, but protocol is to take down a violent or agitated prisoner “in any way possible.”
“I wouldn’t say Witt was slammed,” White said. “But the impact was hard.”
Witt was serving a 20-year prison sentence following a conviction of aggravated robbery and unauthorized use of a vehicle in 2007. He would have been eligible for parole in 2024, Bridges said.
Naomi Denman, Witt’s sister, testified she did not know why Witt was serving the maximum sentence for an aggravated robbery when the range was from two to 20 years.
The state will continue to call witnesses at 9 a.m. today in the 239th district court room at 111 E. Locust St.