Two tourists from Toledo claim they were trapped in "hell on earth" after they were arrested on public drunkeness charges in New Orleans' French Quarter two days before Hurricane Katrina's landfall and remained stuck behind bars for more than a month.
A federal jury decided on Thursday that New Orleans city jail officials violated the pair's constitutional rights.
Seven jurors heard closing arguments for the civil case involving Robie Waganfeald and Paul Kunkel Jr., both of Toledo, Ohio, filed against Sheriff Marlin Gusman and two of his top deputies. The Toledo men, seeking $1.3 million in damages, were awarded a total of $459,300. The jury also said that one of Gusman's chief deputies violated the men's constitutional rights by prohibiting their use of a telephone after their arrest. For that violation, jurors awarded them $200,000.
Waganfeald, a volleyball official, and Kunkel, a teacher, say the sheriff could have released people charged with minor municipal offenses before the storm hit, but Gusman testified Wednesday that he has never exercised that power.
The men claim they were falsely arrested by New Orleans police for public intoxication in the French Quarter in the early morning hours of Saturday, Aug. 27, 2005, just two days before Hurricane Katrina struck.
In complaint filed in 2006, Waganfeald and Kunkel accused New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Sheriff Gusman with failing to provide adequate "food and water, staffing, emergency equipment and resources to provide a safe, secure and humane environment for persons detained at the Orleans Parish jail" given the enormous threat posed by Hurricane Katrina. Read original legal complaint (The Lens)
Kunkel says he was locked in a jail cell with a few other men for over three days with no food or water. He also said there was no flushable toilet and no air conditioning to combat increasing temperatures. "Eventually, when no guards showed up, we thought they'd left, and we were there and if nothing happened, we were going to die there," Kunkel testified in court. "You had five men living in temperatures well over 100 degrees, there was sewage water rising up from the first floor, the toilet was, I couldn't even describe the smell, it was putrid, horrible."
Both men were released in early October 2005 without being charged with any crime.
(The Associated Press contributed to this article. All Rights Reserved.)