The formal written brief asking the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the conviction of former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputy James Sexton was filed last Friday, and WitnessLA has obtained a copy. In it, Sexton’s defense attorneys, led by former U.S. Attorney, Thomas O’brien, accuse federal prosecutors of taking crucial grand jury testimony given months earlier by Mr. Sexton and presenting it to Sexton’s trial jury in an highly edited form that fundamentally changed its meaning—rendering it misleading and false.
If you’ll remember, last September, James Sexton was convicted of obstruction of justice in connection with the FBI’s investigation into civil rights abuses by sheriff’s deputies inside LA County’s troubled jail system.
Specifically, Sexton was found guilty of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice because of his part in helping to hide federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers.
It was the second time that Sexton had been tried for the same charges. His first go-round, which took place in May of 2014, resulted in a “hopelessly deadlocked” jury that split six-six.
Sexton was the seventh former LASD department member to be convicted of obstruction with regard to the Brown case. The other six—two lieutenants, two sergeants and two deputies—were convicted in July 2014 and all seven were given prison sentences that ranged in length from 18 months to 41 months.
Sexton and the other six appealed their convictions to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the 9th agreed to hear both cases.
SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
The appeals of all seven former department members convicted of obstruction are, in certain ways, similar. For instance, in the 77-page brief filed Friday, Sexton’s attorneys argue that the case was the “..unfortunate product of a turf war taken to the extreme.” The appeal then goes on to describe “two law enforcement agencies”—namely the LASD and the FBI—that “..both thought they were more important than the other.”
This “jousting” by decision makers “resulted in lower level officers facing federal convictions for obstructing justice when they thought they were serving justice,” states the brief. The filing also makes clear that Sexton and the rest did what they were ordered to do by their bosses.
“This is not criminal activity,” write Sexton’s attorneys to the appellate court. “This is not obstruction of justice. It is a tragedy that this Court should correct.”
In an appellate brief weighing in at an impressive 161 pages, that was also filed on Friday, the attorneys for the other six, made a similar argument, albeit in even greater detail, that those convicted had followed what they believed to be lawful orders that came from the very top of the organization, along with expanded versions of the orders handed down by supervisors in between.
Yet, there are also certain critical differences between Sexton’s appeal, and the appeal for the other six.
JUROR NO. 5
In one of the latter’s brief’s most interesting sections, the attorneys for the six dispute Judge Percy Anderson’s dismissal of one particular juror late in the deliberation process, who wanted out because she was feeling “threatened.” The juror, wrote attorneys for the six, “revealed” at least a “reasonable possibility that her difficulties stemmed from disagreements with another juror (or jurors) about the merits of the case. The strong implication was that the dismissed juror, had she stayed on, was reasonably likely to have voted to acquit, which would have meant a hung jury.
IS IT LEGAL TO EDIT?
In Sexton’s appellate brief what is perhaps the most intriguing section pertains to the trimming of his testimony, which Judge Anderson permitted over the strenuous objections by his defense attorneys. At trial, the core of the government’s case was Sexton’s grand jury testimony, which the prosecutors characterized as a confession.
In Sexton’s first trial, which ended up with a hung jury, the government’s central piece of evidence was also Sexton’s grand jury testimony, a long segment of which was reenacted for the jury. Yet for the second trial, the feds took the same segment read to the jury in the first trial, and edited some of its content in such a way that, according Sexton’s attorneys, changed the meaning substantially from what the jury heard in the first trial:
Not coincidentally, the Government opted to edit out essentially all of the testimony relied upon by Mr. Sexton in his closing argument during the first trial. During the first trial, Mr. Sexton relied on portions of his Grand Jury testimony to establish and to argue that he did not have the requisite knowledge of the pending investigation in order to obstruct it.
The brief argues that snips made by the feds removed important context, and what was left suggested that Sexton had knowledge and intentions that the full transcript would have made clear he did not possess.
The removal of these excerpts rendered the testimony misleading…[to the jury] and it was not harmless. This Court need look no further than the facts that, in the first trial—with full evidence—the jury hung… and in the second trial the Government specifically targeted those portions of the testimony Mr. Sexton relied on his closing to know this error was not harmless and that the trial court abused its discretion in excluding this evidence.
In other words, according to the appeal, reading the unedited version of the grand jury testimony produced one meaning, and one jury outcome. Whereas reading the line edited version produced a very different—and false—meaning for the jury, and that Sexton’s conviction was the result.
TO TARGET OR NOT TO TARGET
There are a number of other interesting points in Sexton’s appeal: It maintains, for instance, that Sexton was given the clear impression that he was viewed as a cooperating witness, not as a suspect, in his interactions with the FBI and with federal prosecutors. He had after all met with the FBI several dozen times, and had brought them documents. Then when he went to testify in front of the grand jury, according to the appeal, the feds assured Sexton that he was not a target of their investigation, when it turned out that he was. This bait and switch, the attorneys wrote, was against the feds’ own policy.
The USAM [US Attorney's Manual] instructs the USAO [US Attorney's Office] that targets of the investigation should not be subpoenaed without special consideration. Here, Mr. Sexton was specifically advised he was not a target, participated in countless interviews, and offered fulsome grand jury testimony all based on the Government’s repeated statements that he was not a target, only to find out that he was a target and his Grand Jury testimony was to form the core of the evidence against him. The Government’s failure to follow its own written policies which were enacted to prevent “unfairness,” must not be allowed to go unchecked. If the Government is allowed to subpoena targets before the Grand Jury without warning, in violation of DOJ policies, the potential for abuse is endless.
In the next 60 days the government will send the 9th Circuit its formal replies. And then likely late this year or early next year, the 9th will actually hear the two appeals and render a decision.
So stay tuned.
UPDATE: Here are the two briefs for your reading pleasure.