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Two Former Los Angeles Sheriff’s Deputies Sentenced to Prison for Savagely Beating Jail Inmate

November 28th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon

AND THAT MAKES 20 CONVICTIONS OF FORMER LOS ANGELES COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT MEMBERS AS PART OF THE MULTI-YEAR FEDERAL INVESTIGATION INTO CORRUPTION AND BRUTALITY IN THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY JAIL SYSTEM.

On Monday morning, two former members of Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department were sentenced to terms in federal prison for violating the civil rights of a mentally ill jail inmate who was beaten, kicked and pepper sprayed after showing “disrespect” to a jail employee at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

That makes at total of 20 department members who have been convicted of federal charges resulting from a multi-year investigation into corruption, brutality and civil rights abuses in the department run LA County jail system.

Bryan Brunsting, 32, and Jason Branum, 36, (who is also, for reasons never really explained, known as Jason Johnson), were sentenced on Wednesday by a stern-faced U.S. District Court Judge George W. Wu, who handed Branum a sentence of five months in federal custody, while Brunsting was sentenced to 21 months in federal prison.

In mid-may of this year, a seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated for just slightly more than an hour after nearly a week of dramatic testimony regarding the charges of beating, kicking and pepper spraying an allegedly unresisting schizophrenic inmate named Philip Jones on March 22, 2010. Then, according to the prosecution, after the beating the deputies falsified reports about the incident by portraying Jones as the out-of control aggressor who should be the one to be criminally prosecuted.

The jury panel found Brunsting and Branum guilty on all three counts of conspiracy to violate jail inmate Philip Jones’s civil rights, deprivation of rights under color of law, and falsification of records.

Following the trial, federal prosecutors reached an agreement with Brunsting in which he admitted his role in another use-of-force incident on August 20, 2009 at Twin Towers.


RELUCTANT WHISTLEBLOWERS

In the May trial, the prosecution’s case rode primarily on the testimony of a former LASD deputy named Joshua Sather, who was the most outstanding recruit in his training academy graduating class in the spring of 2010. Yet, according to the government, this same deputy resigned from the department after less than two weeks on the job following an incident in which he was allegedly told to participate in the brutal beating of a mentally ill inmate at the instruction of his training officer Bryan Brunsing.

According to federal prosecutors, on March 22, 2010, both Brunsting, who was at the time the training officer for a group of less experienced deputies, and Branum, a former military serviceman, decided to ‘teach” inmate Jones “a lesson” after the inmate mouthed off to a female custody assistant named Porscha Singh.

Jones was to learn that “disrespect will be met with physical violence,” lead government prosecutor Brandon Fox told the jury.

There was also a second lesson, according to Fox. But this “lesson” was for the benefit of “honor recruit,” Joshua Sather, “the future of this sheriff’s department.” For Sather, said Fox, “it was Training Day.” The message was, he said, “we’re going to teach you how it’s done at Twin Towers.”

As part of the lesson, said Fox, Brunsting and Branum decided to test the new deputy “to see if he could be trusted” not to be a snitch. And so it was that Sather became part of the group teaching inmate Jones his lesson.

“For one day Joshua Sather passed their test with flying colors,” Fox told the jury during closing arguments. But then a few days later, the promising deputy became troubled and “decided to walk away from his promising career. He decided to come forward.”

Similarly, custody assistant Porscha Singh “told the truth about what she saw” and heard,” said Fox. Singh was the department member to whom inmate Jones had talked back.

What Brunsting and Branham didn’t expect, said Fox at the trial’s end, “was that these two people—–Porscha Singh and Joshua Sather—–would cross the thin blue line” to tell the truth.

Sather, a very reluctant witness, testified that he was so disturbed by the experience of the beating and the cover-up—particularly the fact that he’d gone along with it—that he resigned from the department.

When it was the defense’s turn to deliver their closing, their main thesis was that the prosecution’s primary witnesses, Sather and Singh, were clumsy liars.

The jury didn’t buy it.


“TRAINING NEW DEPUTIES” HOW TO BEAT UP DEPUTIES “AND GET AWAY WITH IT”

“Both defendants engaged in a vicious, premeditated assault on an inmate,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker. “Deputy Brunsting’s conduct was even more egregious given that he was involved in the abuse of a second inmate, and he was training new deputies on how to violate inmates’ civil rights and get away with it. These defendants tarnished all law enforcement with their conduct, undermining the outstanding work by the vast majority of officers in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the nation.”

The case against Brunsting and Branum was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Brandon D. Fox and Lindsey Greer Dotson of the Public Corruption and Civil Rights Section.

Counsel for both defendants said they would appeal their clients’ convictions. Brunsting and Branum are able to remain free while their appeals make their way through the court system.

Posted in LASD | 6 Comments »

Judge Puts Off Decision About Whether Former LA Sheriff Lee Baca Can use an Expert to Introduce Baca’s Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

November 23rd, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


PUTTING LEE BACA’S MEMORY ON THE WITNESS STAND

At a 3 p.m hearing on Wednesday in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson, federal prosecutor Brandon Fox argued that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his defense team should not be allowed to bring in expert witness, UCLA psychiatrist Dr. James Spar, to testify about Baca’s diagnosis of early stage Alzheimer’s disease, and what it suggests about his cognitive ability in the years prior to his diagnosis.

Baca was first officially diagnosed as having some kind of cognitive impairments, on May 13, 2014.

More to the point, the defense hopes to have Spar testify about whether it was likely that the former sheriff was suffering cognitive impairment during the four and a half hour interview with federal officials on April 12, 2013, during which time he allegedly lied to the feds on four different occasions.

Baca is charged with obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying to federal officials. His trial is scheduled to begin jury selection on December 6.

Spar’s area of expertise has to do with mental illnesses affecting the elderly, thus by getting him to the witness stand, the defense hopes to introduce the idea that the former sheriff may not have been cognitively able in 2011, and again in 2013, to be legally responsible for his alleged crimes.

Spar’s proposed testimony, argued Fox, “is based on insufficient facts and data. Dr. Spar’s proposed testimony would result in juror confusion and unfair prejudice to the government.”


“I DON’T RECALL”

Baca’s attorney, Nathan Hochman, pointed out in the defense’s opposition to the government’s motion, and again in court, that his client had answered “I don’t recall” 25 times” during the crucial 2013 interview with the government. Dr. Spar, Hochman said, would testify to the probability that Mr. Baca was in the “pre-clinical stage” of Alzheimers, which Spar contends “can occur 10 years or more before the onset of clinical symptoms,” or the Mild Clinical Impairment” or MCI stage of Alzheimer’s during his April 12, 2013 government interview, but that the symptoms “were not formally diagnosed until May 2014.”

In response, Fox pointed out that “I don’t recall,” is a common response by witnesses in the hot seat, and called Spar’s contention that Baca could have been suffering from some kind of cognitive impairment for up to ten years prior to his actual diagnosis “junk science.” Spar was “cherry picking” facts that were beneficial to the defense, Fox said.

On Tuesday, Judge Anderson seemed very engaged in the issue, and asked defense attorney Hochman question after question about what Spar would say that was “an objective assessment.” Were there any “documented complaints by Baca about memory?” Anderson wanted to know.

In the end, however, Judge Anderson declined to rule right away on the government’s motion to bar Dr. Spar’s testimony, but said he would hand down a ruling before the trial’s beginning.


IF NOT SPAR THEN BACA?

Even if the judge rules that Spar’s testimony would be more prejudicial than probative, thus keeps Dr. Spar off the stand, the defense could still get the Alzheimer’s issue in front of the jury by putting Baca on the stand, said former assistant U.S. Attorney, Miriam Krinsky, who was also the executive director of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence.

When WitnessLA asked Hochman if the defense team would indeed consider putting the former sheriff on the stand, he said that the defense team was “evaluating all options, and those options include calling Sheriff Baca as a witness in his own case.”

Posted in LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 4 Comments »

As Lee Baca’s Trial Approaches, the Fight Heats Up About the Former LA Sheriff’s “Cognitive Impairment”

November 21st, 2016 by Celeste Fremon



THE LEGAL FIGHT OVER LEE BACA’S MEMORY

Earlier this month, both the defense and the prosecution agreed with the assessment of a court-appointed examiner
that former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca was competent to stand trial on charges of obstruction of justice, conspiracy to obstruct justice, and lying in four different instances to federal officials.

The trial is scheduled to begin on December 6.

Now the fight is over whether or not the former sheriff was cognitively able in 2011, and again in 2013, to be legally responsible for his alleged crimes.

Baca was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease in early 2016, news that became public in June of this year. Since that time, the issue of the former sheriff’s cognitive impairment has been a legal matter as well as a medical one. (WitnessLA first broke the story of Baca’s illness in late May.)

Yet, although both parties have agreed that Mr. Baca’s is fit to go to trial next month, the former sheriff’s mental state will clearly be a major feature of the defense’s argument that Baca should be acquitted of all charges. The defense team contends that in the late summer and early fall of 2011, when the events underlying the obstruction of justice charges occurred, Baca was already failing cognitively.

They further contend that the former sheriff was suffering from memory impairment during his April 12, 2013 government interview, where he was asked about “events and conversations” that occurred in August-September 2011. It was his answers to questions in this interview that resulted in the charge of lying to federal officials.

The defense has a medical expert, Dr. James Spar, a professor of clinical psychiatry at UCLA’s med school, who will testify that Baca was already suffering from memory loss and confusion in 2013, and very likely was comprimised for up to ten years prior to his diagnosis this year.

In Baca’s filing, defense attorney Nathan Hochman also names two former department members—former LASD deputy Micky Manzo, and former LASD captain Tom Carey—who reported observing Baca seeming “confused.”

Not surprisingly, the prosecution team of Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brandon Fox, Lizabeth Rhodes, and Eddie Jauregui presents a very different view.


“NO MEDICAL EVIDENCE”

In a motion filed earlier this month, government prosecutors write that, during Baca’s 16-year tenure as LA County sheriff, he “never reported any concerns about memory loss or cognitive impairment to any doctor.”

The opposite is true, they write. “There is no medical evidence of cognitive deficiencies in
defendant’s medical records during, or before, his alleged crimes.”

According to the prosecution, Baca “repeatedly went to the doctor and reported no issues related to cognitive functioning.’ Doctors who saw him from 2010 to 2013 “observed and reported that he was alert and oriented to person, place, and time, that there were no significant neurological findings, and that psychiatric affect was always normal.”

In addition, Baca “planned to run for re-election in 2014.”

The prosecution further notes that it was only in March 2014 that Baca sought medical advice based on concerns about his cognitive functioning. “Medical records from that period indicate that defendant’s chief complaint was sleep disturbance,” they write, “although defendant also complained of anxiety, depression and memory difficulties.”

It was not until May 13, 2014, when Baca went to see a neuropsychologist, “that cognitive impairments were first noted by a clinician.”


TUESDAY HEARING

In a hearing at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson will hear the defense and the prosecution both present arguments about whether or not Baca’s expert, Dr. James Spar, should be permitted to testify at trial–along with some other issues.

Baca, if you’ll remember, originally pleaded guilty in February of this year to one felony count of lying to federal authorities when officials questioned him in the course of a wide-ranging investigation into “corruption and civil rights violations” in the department he’d led for fifteen years, an investigation that, according to the government, Baca, his former undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, and others attempted to thwart.

Specifically, Baca admitted that he lied to the FBI and members of the U.S. Attorney’s Office during a round of questioning on April 12, 2013. At that time, among other denials by Baca, the former sheriff falsely claimed ignorance of the fact that, in 2011, two LASD sergeants were going to approach FBI special agent, Leah Marx, and threaten her with arrest, hoping to get information about the feds’ rapidly expanding investigation.

Once Baca pleaded guilty to the single felony count in February, all that remained was for the former sheriff to be sentenced by Judge Anderson at a hearing scheduled for late July.

However, when the hearing arrived, Anderson rejected Baca’s plea deal, telling those in the courtroom that the 0 to 6 month sentencing range that the deal required “would trivialize the seriousness of [Baca's] offenses, his lack of respect for the law and the gross abuse of the public trust…..”

Rather than risk the unspecified longer sentence that Judge Anderson intimated he intended to hand down, Baca opted to go to trial. Thus in early August, the former sheriff was indicted by a federal grand jury for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The two new charges were added to an expanded version of the original charge of lying to federal officials.

We’ll let you know what happens on Tuesday. So stay tuned.


PHOTO OF LEE BACA BY SAXON BRICE

Posted in LASD, Pandora's Box, Sheriff Lee Baca | 11 Comments »

The Cost of Dangerous Jails: Two More High Ticket Payouts for LA County Jail Deaths

November 11th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon



TWO DEATHS, TWO HIGH $$ PAYOUTS

Despite the work toward reform in the Los Angeles County Jails in the last few years, the problems that were allowed to bloom largely unchecked inside the nation’s largest jail system continue to take millions of dollars out of the pockets of LA County’s taxpayers in the form of legal settlements.

On Wednesday of this week, the day after voting day, the board of supervisors agreed to pay a grand total of $3,250,000 in settlements to the families of two inmates who died in the jails.

In addition to the $3.25 million on the two cases, the county paid $928,564 in attorneys fees and expenses on the cases that dragged on for a year and a half, in once case, and two-and-a-half years in the other.

One of the deaths occurred after many of the reforms were supposedly in place, at least in part.


SUICIDE OR NOT?

The most recent of the cases was filed in April 2015 by Arean Edwards, the mother of 24-year-old Earl Lee Johnson, who alleged that, on September 27 2014, sheriff’s deputies at Twin Towers jail beat her son in the head so badly that he became unconscious. Then, according to the lawsuit, the deputies covered-up the alleged assault by hanging the young man from a bedsheet in his cell to make his injuries appear be suicide.

Johnson did not die right away but lingered in the hospital for three weeks before succumbing to this injuries.

James Orland, the attorney for Johnson’s mother, told an AP reporter in April 2015 that the LA coroner’s office Johnson killed himself by hanging.

Orland said that the family got its own autopsy, which concluded Johnson died from a “fractured skull” caused by “blunt-force trauma.”

County counsel recommended settling.


DEATH INSTEAD OF FIRE CAMP

The second case was brought by Helen Jones, the mother of a 22-year-old man named John Horton who, on March 30, 2009, was found hanging from a noose in his cell in Men’s Central Jail.

WitnessLA wrote about the case in a two-part series back in 2009, and learned that, when Horton died, he had been in jail for over a month on a drug possession charge and was waiting to be shipped off to fire camp where he was to serve two years. As a nonviolent, low-level offender without a pile of priors Horton was eligible the program that allows inmates to learn elements of wildland firefighting. According to his mother, he welcomed the idea of fire camp.

Yet, for reasons that no one could adequately explain, for nearly entire duration of Horton’s time in CJ, Horton had been kept in insolation in a a dimly lit, windowless, solid-front cell the size of a closet.

The cell was around 5 X 7 feet, said Margaret Winter, the head of the ACLU’s national prison project, when we talked back in 2009 about Horton’s case.

Winter, who has seen many cells in her professional life, said that Horton’s cell was so dimly lit that reading would have been difficult or impossible. “And there was nothing else in the cell. It was a room with no desk, no chair.”

Only a cot, sink and toilet and a cement floor. This meant that Horton was left in the room for hours and hours on end, seeing no one, talking to no one, reading nothing, receiving none of the prison programs. Glimpsing no sunlight. For hours, and days, that turned into weeks.

Horton’s mother, Helen Jones, told me that, initially, she thought it was a good thing that her son was in jail. She was optimistic that the arrest would be the wake up call he needed to get him off of drugs and back on a positive path.

Horton was originally arrested for drug possession in 2007, Jones explained. At that time, she said, he accepted a plea agreement and was ordered by the judge to go to a drug rehab. Horton agreed eagerly, according to his mother. But on the day he was supposed to report to the rehab facility, he never showed up. As a consequence a bench warrant was issued in his name.

Fast forward to late February of 2009. Jones was worried about her son. She didn’t see him use drugs but she knew something was amiss, “He was a good boy. But he was messed up, she said. He loved kids. He was talented boxer. But he was having problems, she said, and she was at a loss to know what to do about it.

Finally one night Jones found John overdosed. She was fairly sure he had taken a bunch of pills. Terrified, she drove him to the emergency room of St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.

At the hospital, the existence of the arrest warrant was discovered. Once Horton was determined to be out of immediate danger, he was taken to Men’s Central Jail.


STUCK IN SOLITARY

Helen Jones went to visit him a day later and he still seemed very groggy. I’m alright, he told her. I’m reading the Bible. It’s okay.

Jones wasn’t sure. So she made a point of going to the jail again a couple of days later. This time she was told her son could have no visitors. Nor could he make phone calls. “He’s in protective custody,” the deputy said. No one seemed to be able to explain what exactly this meant.

Jones said she tried again a few days later still. Again, she was told that Horton could have no visitors. Worried, she asked to see the watch commander, whom she said was uninformative. “My son needs to know I’m here for him,” she said she told the officer. “He needs my support.”

Helen Jones next saw her son on March 16 when he went to court to face the consequences of his AWOL from rehab.

According to Jones, the judge seemed to see that John was no hard core criminal but a young man in need of help. In any case, it was this judge who agreed to sentence Horton to the two years in fire camp, where he would learn a trade and get back in good physical condition. Jones was overjoyed at the fire camp sentence.

“When I talked to him, he was relieved too,” she told me in 2009. There would be no more running. No more drugs. “He was already planning what he would do in two years when he was released. He wanted to come out and go back to boxing. That was his plan.”

Jones said she actually thanked the judge.

Yet, during the hearing she became concerned about her son’s mental condition. He was behaving strangely.

“He wasn’t all the way right,” she said. The judge who, according to Jones, recognized that Horton was in some kind of state of mental distress, told her that John would be in the medical unit of the jail for at least the beginning of the two or three weeks it would take to arrange the transfer to fire camp. He told her that she shouldn’t worry.


STILL NO VISITORS

A few days later, Jones again went to visit her son, but was once more told he could have no visitors, and could not make phone calls. “He’s supposed to be in the medical unit,” she told the jail staff. No, he was in “protective custody,” they said. Again there was no explanation.

Jones continued to go back to the jail during visiting hours to try to see her son, but was never able to see him.

The last day Jones tried to visit her son at Men’s Central Jail, it was on a weekend. This time she was told he was in “disciplinary custody.” Frightened and furious, she asked how he could go from isolation in protective custody to isolation in disciplinary custody, when a judge had supposedly slated him for the medical unit. Had John done something wrong? The staff said they could give her no information.

Jones again asked to see the watch commander. She was told that seeing a watch commander was not possible. By this time, Helen had been trying to visit her son for a month and had been repeatedly put off. She was not about to be put off again. She worked her way up the command structure until finally the watch commander did come out to talk to her.

He was very polite, Jones told me. Kind even.

Since it was the weekend, he said, if she would come back the following Wednesday, he would get to the bottom of things and have an answer for her then.

Wednesday turned out to be too late. “By Monday he was gone,” she said.

John Horton hanged himself on Monday, March 30.


WAS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION?

By the time deputies found Horton he had been dead so long that rigor mortis had set in. “How long was he in there? He’s very stiff!” the prison paramedic reportedly remarked to the officers, according to the ACLU’s Winter.

The man in the cell next to Horton reportedly began taking frantic notes immediately after the young man’s death, just to make sure that someone had a record of what had happened. WitnessLA obtained a copy of the inmate’s notes. (See image above.)

In the days before his suicide, wrote the inmate/witness, Horton showed many signs that he was a man in serious trouble. For one thing, he had tied a noose tied to the back of his light fixture in his cell and hanging in plain sight.

“I seen it. They seen it. Mr. Horton visibly stood in his cell and/or squatting atop his sink with plastic ties around his wrist and looking directly at the noose (several deputies observed these “items” and ‘behavior’ when taking me or bringing me back they brought me back from the law-library)…”

Horton stopped eating, refused his meds, began talking to himself, yet according to the witness, he told staff that Horton needed help. But he observed no help or intervention given.

At the time, we talked to a second inmate who, while farther away, told a similar story of Horton being in distress, and no one reportedly paying attention until it was much too late.


MORE READING

Frank Stoltze at KPCC has a report that looks at the changes being made inside the jails now, which includes training as to how to better deal with mentally ill inmates.

And the Office of Inspector General Max Huntsman has issued a new report that looks at progress in reform efforts in the LASD in general, and specifically in the jails. You can find that report here.

Posted in LASD | 14 Comments »

WitnessLA on KCRW’s Press Play With Madeleine Brand Discussing the LASD New Commission and Baca’s Upcoming Trial

November 3rd, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


CAUTIOUS OPTIMISM ABOUT THE NEW LASD CITIZEN’S COMMISSION AND BACA’S TRIAL FAST APPROACHING

On Wednesday, I was on KCRW’s Press Play with Madeleine Brand talking with her about the newly formed Citizens’ Oversight Commission for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and also about the latest developments in the upcoming federal trial of former LA County sheriff Lee Baca.

New commission member Hernán Vera was also on the show, talking about what he feels the commission can accomplish and why, the concerns he has, and the things that give him cause for optimism. Vera is an attorney who, for years, was the head of the nation’s largest pro-bono law firm. He now is in private practice.

You can stream the show here.

Posted in LASD | No Comments »

Fed Judge Denies Baca’s Motions to Recuse Lead Prosecutor and Change the Trial Location

November 1st, 2016 by Taylor Walker

At 3:00 on Monday afternoon, in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s attorneys made the case for why the lead federal prosecutor, Brandon Fox, should be recused from Baca’s upcoming trial, as well as why the trial venue should be moved from Los Angeles. Both of these motions were denied by Judge Anderson.


A BIT OF BACKSTORY

Mr. Baca, if you’ll remember, pleaded guilty in February to one count of lying to federal officials. In return for his plea, he was to receive a sentence of between 0 and 6 months in prison.

Judge Anderson rejected the plea because of the low sentencing range, saying it trivialized the harm that Baca had done to the department and to the community at large.

In mid-October, US District Court Judge Otis D. Wright, II, denied a motion filed by Baca’s attorneys to recuse Judge Anderson from presiding over the former sheriff’s trial.


THE MOTION TO REMOVE PROSECUTOR BRANDON FOX FROM THE CASE

Standing before Judge Anderson, former sheriff’s defense lawyer, Nathan Hochman, cited a need to call lead prosecutor Brandon Fox as a witness in the trial as the reason for the motion to remove the prosecutor from the case.

Hochman argued that Fox is “uniquely qualified” to provide testimony regarding the Baca’s demeanor—whether Baca exhibited “physical manifestations of Mr. Baca’s being confused, distracted, lucid, tired, or alert”—during the interview Fox and a handful of others conducted in 2013 that resulted in the former sheriff’s plea deal. Baca has, as most readers are aware, been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis was made public in late June (although WLA broke the news the month before).

There were five others present for the interview who could be called to the witness stand instead of Fox, according to the team of prosecutors, which along with Fox, included Assistant U.S. Attorneys Lizabeth Rhodes and Margaret Carter, plus two FBI agents.

The motion appeared to be less about “securing the testimony of a witness,” and “more about kicking of the prosecutor.” Anderson said. It would be like the Buffalo Bills’ coach asking to disqualify Tom Brady from a game, the judge quipped.

It’s also worth noting that Baca has added a new member to the defense team, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Tinos Diamantatos, who was present on Monday, but stayed silent.


SEEKING A NEW TRIAL LOCATION

Along with the motion to recuse Fox, Hochman argued in favor of moving the former sheriff’s trial to another part of California due to a “tsunami of highly prejudicial media coverage.”

Hochman told Anderson jurors would not be able to put Baca’s previous admission of guilt “out of their heads,” arguing that potential jurors within the Central District—or in LA—have been subject to a deluge of “inflammatory” media coverage regarding the case.

Judge Anderson regularly interrupted Hochman to ask questions or make comments about the validity of the defense’s arguments. Anderson said that it was ironic that the defense would ask for a change of venue when Hochman gave an interview to a member of the press “the same day the motion was filed.” It was a theme Anderson seemed to like. At a previous hearing, the judge noted that Baca’s lead attorney seemed fond of holding press conferences on the steps of the courthouse.

In the prosecution’s response to the request to move the trial, Jauregui pointed out that the Central District of California is the “largest judicial district in the nation.”

If the question is “Can this person get a fair trial?”, the answer is “Yes,” said Jauregui.

Judge Anderson also called attention to the fact that not all of the 7.5 million potential jurors residing within the Central District’s Western Division are in Los Angeles County. The division also includes communities more than 200 miles away in counties stretching up the coast. Jurors could come from as far away as Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo Counties.

Furthermore, it “was not difficult to find impartial jurors” for former undersheriff Paul Tanaka’s trial, Anderson said. As for Baca’s case, the “decibel level of media attention” has also diminished somewhat over the past few months, the judge noted.


STRIKING A PARAGRAPH FROM THE INDICTMENT

There was, by the way, a third motion, albeit one that elicited less drama than the first two. In this last motion, Baca and his attorneys wanted to strike the following paragraph, 7(b), from the indictment:

From no later than December 2010 and continuing to at least July 2011, allegations surfaced that LASD deputies working on the 3000 floor of [Men’s Central Jail], who called themselves the “3000 Boys,” exhibited gang-like and violent behavior, used excessive force against inmates, and falsified reports to cover up wrongdoing.”

The defense team reasoned that the information “goes beyond alleging the elements” of Baca’s charges, and “is irrelevant and is extremely prejudicial.”

Anderson said that for the paragraph to be excised, it would have to include information not related to the defendant. In this case, however, the paragraphs above 7(b) qualify the information by stating that Baca was “well aware” of the allegations of abuse described in paragraph 7(b).

After nearly two hours of discussion between Anderson, Hochman, and the federal prosecutors, the judge denied each of the three motions.

All parties have been ordered to appear at a mental health competency hearing for Baca on Nov 21 at 3:00pm.


THIS STORY WAS UPDATED at 12:02 P.M, November 1, 2016

Posted in LASD | 6 Comments »

LA Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission Members Named & Commission Ready for Supes Go-Ahead

October 31st, 2016 by Celeste Fremon



A CIVILIAN OVERSIGHT COMMISSION FOR THE LASD IS ABOUT TO BE BORN

The nine people who will make up the LA County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Commission have finally been chosen. The commissioners-to-be and the birth of the commission itself is slated to be officially confirmed by a vote of the LA Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Most LASD watchers are relieved that an oversight commission for the recently scandal ridden, and notoriously hard to wrangle department is finally close to being launched. Yet many are also concerned because the commission has no real power. It cannot subpoena department documents, and is only advisory. Still, as Inspector General Max Huntsman told KPCC’s Frank Stoltze, “I think it will be powerful because of the people on it.”

Let us hope so. (Huntsman will work with the commission, which is authorized to use his officer to investigate issues of concern to the community.)

It’s true, the nine commissioners are an interesting and serious mix of activists, attorneys, community leaders and others.

Five of the nine commissioners were chosen—one each—by the five board members. The remaining four were chosen by the board collectively, in consultation with County Counsel, from recommendations put fourth by the board’s executive director.


THE COMMISSIONERS

Here are the chosen nine:

Hernán Vera, who was appointed by Supervisor Hilda Solis, is an attorney who, until 2014, worked as the longtime president and CEO of the pro-bono law firm, Public Counsel. Vera was on the original working group that hammered out a shape for the commission, and was one of the group’s members strongly in favor of subpoena power for the commission.

Xavier Thompson, appointed by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, is the pastor of Southern St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles, and president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Southern California. He was part of a group of pastors active in trying to mediate understanding between Black Lives Matter activists, city government and law enforcement, efforts brought criticism from some activists, while praised by some community members.

Patti Giggans, appointment by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, is the executive director of Peace Over Violence, a non-profit that engages in “intervention, prevention, education and advocacy” for victims of abuse and violence. She was the recipient of the Peace Prize from the California Wellness Foundation, and founded the first women’s martial arts school in Southern California in 1978.

JP Harris, appointed by Supervisor Don Knabe, is a well-liked former lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, with 33 years on the job.

Robert Bonner, appointed by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, is a former federal judge, a former US Attorney, and the former head of the DEA, and the US Customs Service, and what became Border Patrol. Perhaps most relevantly, Bonner was a member of the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence, and one of its most outspoken members.

Sean Kennedy, is the executive director of Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, which pushes for “systemic reform” of the juvenile justice system in LA County. Previously he was the Federal Public Defender for the Central District of California, and Chief of the Federal Public Defender Capital Habeas Unit. In 2013, he was named as Criminal Defense Attorney of the Year by the LA County Bar Association

Heather Miller is a rabbi of the LGBT- founded Jewish congregation at Beth Chayim Chadashim, and one of the six nominees for the commission put forth by the influential activist organization, Dignity and Power Now.

Priscilla Ocen, who is also a nominee of Dignity and Power Now, is an Associate Professor at Loyola Law School. Before Loyola she was a Critical Race Studies fellow at UCLA School of Law, and a Thurgood Marshall Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. Ocen is an expert on the relationship between race and gender and punishment.

Lael Rubin was a Deputy District Attorney in Los Angeles for over 30 years, where she became well known for her work on a string of high profile cases. In 2000, Rubin was recruited to become special counsel to Los Angeles DA Steve Cooley, helping him on, among other things, his work to reform Three Strikes.

The nine commissioners are all required to go through a comprehensive training program that will cover, according to the text of the ordinance that will actually create the commission, “Constitutional policing including such topics as use of force, firearms, custody, mental health issues, juvenile justice and patrol.”

The Commission, once it is up and running, will meet once a month. The Sheriff or a top LASD official is required to attend.

More as it happens.

Posted in LASD | 22 Comments »

Former Sheriff Lee Baca Goes to Court to Get Trial Moved Out of LA & to Get Lead Prosecutor Off Case

October 31st, 2016 by Celeste Fremon


LEE BACA & COMPANY MAKE MOTIONS

On Monday afternoon, former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his attorneys will go to court to try to persuade a federal judge to grant two motions that Baca and company say are crucial to their case.

The first request is for a change of venue. Baca’s lead attorney, Nathan Hochman wrote in the lengthy motion that his client cannot get a fair trial in Los Angeles County, and likely not in areas as close as Orange or Riverside Counties either, due to “a tsunami of highly prejudicial media coverage of the case.”

Motion two seeks to have the government’s lead prosecutor, Brandon Fox, removed from the prosecution’s team because the defense says it plans to call Fox as a crucial witness.

Attorney Hochman’s argument about what he describes as Fox’s importance on the witness stand is laid out in 56 pages, and centers around the interview with Baca by the feds that took place on April 12, 2013, during which the former sheriff allegedly lied to two federal prosecutors, one of them Fox—along with two FBI agents—about his alleged knowledge and participation in event that took place in the late summer of 2011, and that would ultimately form the basis for all the obstruction of justice cases against members of the sheriff’s department.

Baca, if you’ll remember, was indicted by a federal grand jury for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. These two new charges came on top of an original charge of lying to federal officials that Baca admitted to back in February, as part of a plea deal hammered out with federal prosecutors.

The grand jury indictment came about after U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson rejected Baca’s plea deal at a sentencing hearing in July, telling those in the courtroom that the 0 to 6 month sentencing range that the deal required “would trivialize the seriousness of [Baca's] offenses, his lack of respect for the law and the gross abuse of the public trust…..”

Among other things, Hochman contends that, as the main questioner of Baca during his interview with the feds (which led to his original charge), Fox can testify uniquely about the former sheriff’s physical and mental state as he answered questions during the four and a half hour interview, “since part of Mr. Baca’s defense….will rely on the impairment of his memory as a result of his Alzheimer’s disease, to remember in April 2013 what occurred twenty months before in August and September 2011.”

Hochman also wants to ask Fox why he decided to only audiotape the interview rather than video-taping it, when video “would be able to show whether Mr. Baca showed signs of tiredness, confusion, or lucidity…” and more.

Another question the defense feels it is crucial to ask Fox is “why he failed at the beginning of the interview, in contrast to other interviews he conducted in the investigation, to admonish Mr. Baca that although he was not under oath, he could be prosecuted for any false statement made to the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. “

One might wonder why a four-time elected sheriff who headed up the nation’s largest sheriff’s department for a decade and a half should need to be warned that lying to federal officials was against the law, whether under oath or not, but that’s a matter that will no doubt be taken up at the trial.

(WLA wrote about Baca’s motions at more length here.)


CAN’T GET JUSTICE IN LA

A week or so after Baca’s motions were filed, the government team came back with its own strongly-word arguments explaining why the defense’s motions should not be granted.

Regarding the defense demand for a change of venue, the government wrote, “While this case is of public interest, as many cases in this district are, the trial atmosphere has not been ‘utterly corrupted’ such that defendant cannot obtain a fair trial. The idea that twelve impartial individuals could not be empaneled in this, the largest federal judicial district in the nation, is indeed ‘hard to sustain.’

Furthermore, the government argued, “if the Court finds, based on the voir dire process, that actual prejudice may exist,” then the Court can have a back-up jury pool on stand-by in Santa Ana or elsewhere.”


As for getting lead prosecutor Brandon Fox kicked off the government’s legal team, the prosecution had this to say:

“Defendant’s motion is frivolous,” the government wrote. “Defendant has shown no need, let alone the required ‘compelling need’ for AUSA Fox’s testimony. It is obvious that he does not intend to call AUSA Fox as a witness. Instead, defendant’s filing is a thinly veiled attempt to remove from his case an experienced trial attorney who has led the successful prosecutions of defendant’s co-conspirators.”

Originally, Baca and his team also sought to have U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson recused from the case, arguing that Anderson was prejudiced against the defendant.

Since that motion was shot down earlier this month, it means that Anderson will be deciding on Monday’s motions.

Also, we noticed that, after replacing his original attorney, Michael Zweiback, with Nathan Hochman in August, the former sheriff is adding yet another lawyer to his line-up, this one, an out-of-towner from Chicago named Tinos Diamantatos.

More after the hearing. So stay tuned.

Posted in LASD, Sheriff Lee Baca | 1 Comment »

Baca’s Motion to Recuse Federal Judge is Denied….& Tanaka’s Appeal Keeps Him Out of Prison (For Now)

October 14th, 2016 by Celeste Fremon



FEDERAL JUDGE SHOOTS DOWN LEE BACA’S EFFORTS TO HAVE TRIAL JUDGE REMOVED

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Otis D. Wright, II, denied the motion filed by attorneys for former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca to recuse federal Judge Percy Anderson from presiding over Baca’s trial, which is due to begin on December 6.

Late last month, Baca’s legal team led by attorney Nathan Hochman, filed three dramatic pre-trial motions, one of which was to try to force the recusal of Judge Anderson, whom the defense argued could not be an objective jurist.

Hochman’s argument for recusing Anderson centered around statements that Anderson made when he rejected Baca’s plea deal. The defense argued that those statements indicated that “the Court predetermined that Mr. Baca is guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice,” even though, at the time, Hochman pointed out, the former sheriff had yet to be indicted on those charges.

Mr. Baca, if you’ll remember, pleaded guilty in February to one count of lying to federal officials. In return for his plea, he was to receive a sentence of between 0 and 6 months in prison.

Judge Anderson rejected the plea because of the low sentencing range, saying it trivialized the harm that Baca had done to the department and to the community at large.

“It’s one thing to lie to an AUSA,” Anderson told Baca. “It’s another thing entirely, as the evidence has shown, where the chief law enforcement officer of the County of Los Angeles is involved in a wide-ranging conspiracy to cover up abuse and corruption occurring in the Men’s Central Jail.”

Anderson was, of course, also the judge who presided over the trial of the six former department members who were previously convicted of obstruction of justice for allegedly getting in the way of the FBI’s investigation into abuse and corruption in the jails, plus the two different trials of former LASD deputy James Sexton, who was convicted of the same charges. Perhaps, most significantly, Anderson presided over the trial of Paul Tanaka, where the part that Lee Baca did or did not play in allegedly trying to derail a federal investigation repeatedly came up in testimony.

Baca and company argued that given the various statements Anderson made during the sentencing hearings, the judge should not remain. “Even if the Court were to offer that it could put these predeterminations aside,” wrote attorney Hochman, “the standard for recusal is whether the Court’s appearance of impartiality may be reasonably questioned, not whether the Court is actually biased against Mr. Baca.”

But in an 11-page ruling, Judge Wright disagreed.

“In order to prevail on a disqualification motion based on bias,” Wright wrote, “the defendant must provide facts which ‘must give fair support to the charge of a bent of mind that may prevent or impede impartiality of judgment.’ Judge Anderson’s remarks do not even approach the category of expressions of dissatisfaction or annoyance or anger directed at either the defendant or defense counsel which the Court has found permissible, much less an indication of a ‘bent of mind that may prevent or impede impartiality of judgment.’”

In the final analysis, Wright continued, “Baca has failed to offer facts which would lend supportfor the claim that disqualification of Judge Anderson is warranted in this matter.”

(Interestingly, Wright, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2007 by George W. Bush, served as a member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department from 1969 to 1980, by which time he’d graduated from law school and was ready for his legal career.)

Wright’s denial of the motion to get rid of Anderson may or may not bode well for the other two significant motions that Baca’s team filed last month.

Specifically, defense attorney Hochman also filed a motion asking for Baca’s trial to be moved to another part of the state of California, claiming that, due to the “constant, inflammatory, and far-reaching media coverage surrounding this matter,a trial within the Central District of California, particularly within Los Angeles County, will violate Mr. Baca’s due process rights.”

And in another interesting move, Baca and company asked for lead government prosecutor Brandon Fox to be removed from the prosecution’s team, claiming that the defense needs to call Fox as a crucial witness.

On Monday, October 31, the not-recused Judge Percy Anderson will hear the motions to move the trial out of LA County, and to recuse prosecutor Fox.

So stay tuned.


AND IN RELATED COURTROOMS: PAUL TANAKA’S APPEAL TO THE 9TH CIRCUIT PAUSES THE GO-TO-PRISON CLOCK

Back in late September, U.S. District Court Judge Percy Anderson ruled that the fact that Paul Tanaka, the former second in command of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, was appealing his conviction didn’t mean he could stay stay out of prison while he waited around to see what the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would do.

Instead, Tanaka was ordered to report on October 7, either to the low-security federal prison camp in Englewood, Colorado, or to the U.S. Marshals office in downtown Los Angeles, to begin his five year sentence—appeal or no appeal.

But, Anderson’s ruling is only part of the dance between the courts and Mr. Tanaka’s attorneys, Dean Steward and Jerome Haig, who—following Anderson’s ruling—quickly filed their appeal with the Ninth, which automatically stopped the clock anyway when it came to their client’s report-for-prison day.

This means Tanaka can stay out of prison until the Ninth Circuit decides whether or not it will hear the former undersheriff’s appeal. The appeals court could say no, but that is unlikely.

Then, presuming the Ninth Circuit agrees to hear Tanaka’s appeal, the clock is further stopped until the hearing, and then until the ruling. If Tanaka loses his appeal before a three-judge panel at the Ninth, then he and his attorneys can still ask to appeal en banc, which means to the court as a whole, which again stops the clock….and so on.

The former undersheriff of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department was convicted of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice pertaining to allegations that Tanaka personally directed and oversaw deliberate efforts to upend the FBI’s investigation into a culture of brutality and corruption inside the LA County jails, which began in 2010.

Seven of the other former department members who were also convicted of obstruction of justice charges filed appeals with the Ninth Circuit and, after hearings early this summer, lost their appeal. Six of the seven have requested to be heard en banc. The seventh, former deputy James Sexton elected not to continue to try to avoid prison. Instead, he left the en banc appeal behind, and arranged to turn himself in on August 31, to begin his 18-month sentence. He will try a U.S. Supreme Court appeal when he gets out.

Former LASD Captain Tom Carey, was originally charged with the same obstruction charges but, in a deal made with the government, pleaded guilty to lying on the witness stand during the 2014 trial of James Sexton, and is due to be sentenced in January.


MEANWHILE, THE CASE OF FORMER LOS ANGELES SHERIFF’S DEPUTY BAN NGUYEN CONTINUES TO MOVE TOWARD TRIAL – UPDATED

The retaliation case involving former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy Ban Nguyen, who is suing the sheriff’s department along with former undersheriff Paul Tanaka and others, is due to begin trial on October 19.

UPDATE: We just learned today, that the trial has now been moved to January.

In early 2015, Nguyen filed a civil lawsuit alleging that he was retaliated against when he refused to falsify paperwork for certain unsuitable job candidates favored by department higher ups, particularly those candidates supported by former undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

The retaliation got worse, Nguyen alleges, when he was asked to raise money for Tanaka’s 2013 campaign to become LA County Sheriff, and he refused, explaining that he didn’t favor Mr. Tanaka for that post.

After being what he describes as forced into retirement, Nguyen decided to sue the former undersheriff, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for alleged violations of his civil rights along with violations of the state labor code and more. Nguyen also names in his lawsuit two LASD captains, and two department sergeants. (Kevin Hebert and Judy Gerhardt, are the captains named, although both have since been promoted to commander.)

Many of issues outlined in Nguyen’s civil complaint suggest that this trial will be an intriguing one.

More as we know it.

Posted in LASD, Pandora's Box | 23 Comments »

CA and TX Law Enforcement Agencies Failed to Report Hundreds of Fatal Uses-of-Force

October 14th, 2016 by Taylor Walker

Over a 10-year period, law enforcement agencies across Texas and California failed to report hundreds of fatal officer-involved shootings, according to research out of Texas State University in San Marcos.

“Those are the only two states that have required reporting to a central authority—in both cases, the Attorney General’s Office,” Howard Williams, one of the report’s authors, said in an interview on WNYC’s The Takeaway. Williams is a Texas State University professor (and former San Marcos police chief). Williams, along with a TX State colleague, Scott Bowman, and another co-author Jordan Taylor Jung, gathered data on killings by law enforcement officers in both states from news stories, press releases from police departments, and other outlets.

The researchers found that California was missing about 440 (30%) of the total officer-involved fatal shootings between 2005-2015. Agencies in Texas failed to report around 220 deaths.

Brenda Gonzalez, the California Attorney General’s Office press secretary, acknowledged that “discrepancies” were found, and that the AG’s office is “following up with the appropriate agencies.

Between the two states, the LA County Sheriff’s Department was the agency with the largest number of un-reported fatalities.

The LASD’s spokeswoman, Nicole Nishida, told the Houston Chronicle’s Lise Olsen (who broke the story) that many of the department’s 34 missing fatalities were due to a “clerical error” caused by a switch in reporting forms. Four deaths between 2013-2014 were reportedly not connected to that administrative error, however.

Following the LASD, the Fresno Police Department had 24 deaths that were not reported to the AG’s Office between 2005-2015. After that, the Los Angeles Police Department failed to report 21 fatalities, the Houston PD missed 16 deaths, and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Department (in TX) each left out 12 officer-involved deaths.

The rest of the departments had fewer than 10 missing cases each.

Here’s a clip from the Houston Chron story:

Failure to report hundreds of deaths – because police officials ignored or misunderstood the reporting laws – has effectively undermined ongoing efforts to identify the causes of fatal police shootings and identify potential reforms, experts said.

“We’re not really blaming anyone – this is an incredibly complex problem,” said Williams, who began his research after retiring as police chief in San Marcos last year. “But it’s really hard for us to go back and change policy, improve training or purchase new equipment “when you simply lack the data to even know what’s going on.”

[SNIP]

In addition to requiring reports on use-of-force and in-custody death, both California and Texas also recently passed new laws requiring departments to report all shooting incidents, whether those shot survive or die. In Texas, the new police shooting law took effect in 2015 and the attorney general’s office has contacted all departments and tried to boost compliance with both laws, said Kayleigh Lovvorn, an office spokeswoman. But enforcement falls to individual district attorney’s offices.

The Texas State study cited a dozen fatalities unreported by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. One of those involved the 2015 death of a 24-year-old shot by an off-duty deputy outside the Chapa nightclub in northwest Houston.

A sheriff’s spokesman, Ryan Sullivan, said the homicide happened in Houston and was investigated by HPD. But under Texas law, the officer’s employer generally files a custodial death report and the sheriff’s office did not do so. Sullivan said that was the only report that had not been filed under Sheriff Ron Hickman, who took office in May 2015.

Brenda Gonzalez, a spokesman for the California Attorney General’s Office, said via email that the office already has been asking police agencies to file missing reports as part of a new OpenJustice data portal initiative, but she emphasized that California’s custodial death law has “no explicit enforcement mechanism.”

In all, 180 California different police agencies failed to file reports on citizens shot and killed by police. Fresno Deputy Chief Robert Nevarez pledged that his department would belatedly provide missing custodial death reports for 24 deaths. He said analysts in his agency unintentionally misinterpreted state law for years, wrongly assuming it applied only to jail deaths and not officer-involved shootings.

“At this time, it doesn’t look like anything intentional or malicious – it was an interpretation of what should have been reported,” Nevarez said.

Posted in LAPD, LASD, law enforcement | 1 Comment »

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