3 JAIL & PRISON CASES: Court Judgment Against Lee Baca—Personally…..28 LASD Officials Accused of Jail Abuse…& Sad, Bad Treatment of CA’s Imprisoned Mentally IllOctober 18th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon
DID SHERIFF’S DEPUTIES BRUTALLY BEAT AN INMATE FOR NO REASON? AND, IF SO, SHOULD LEE BACA BE HELD PERSONALLY—AND MONETARILY—RESPONSIBLE?
In an unusual legal action, a federal jury has found Sheriff Lee Baca personally liable for punitive damages after a week long jail beating trial that concluded last Friday.
The jury also found against former Men’s Central Jail captain Dan Cruz, and three deputies who worked under him at the jail in 2009, when the reported beating incident occurred.
Specifically, Baca was assessed $100,000 in punitive damages. Dan Cruz was assessed $35,000. The three deputies were asked to pay $10,000 each.
According to department spokesman Steve Whitmore, the sheriff will appeal the verdict. ”The post trial appeal papers have already been drafted,” he said.
The case in question—Willis v. Vasquez– involved a 23-year-old man named Tyler Willis who was on the 2000 floor of MCJ LA county jail awaiting trial when, according to Willis, without any provocation he was strip searched and humiliated in a very public setting. Then Willis was taken to a different location in the jail and, according to the complaint, he was tased, brutally beaten with flashlights, fists and kicked.
The blows broke Willis’s lower leg in two places requiring a full leg cast. He also suffered multiple head wounds, face wounds, taser burns, and large bruises throughout his body, and a displaced fracture of the bone behind his nose.
Here’s a clip from the last amended complaint that details what Willis said happened after the strip search:
…Deputy Vasquez then ordered Plaintiff to enter module 2700 and to put both his hands behind his head and face the wall. Plaintiff complied. Vasquez then maliciously and violently pressed two fingers into Plaintiff’s neck, inflicting severe sharp pain and provoking Plaintiff’s reaction to recoil from the sharp neel pain. Immediately all Defendants jumped in to brutally beat Plaintiff without justification.
Defendant Vasquez reports punching Plaintiff 2-3 times in the face with both fists He repeatedly struck Plaintiff with his flashlight to his legs. Defendant Guerrero reports deploying his X26 taser, fired at Plaintiff’s stomach, hands and struck Plaintiff 5-6 times on both ankles with his flashlight. Defendant Farino reports that he punched Plaintiff 4-5 times in his face; he punched Plaintiff 2 times in the head with his fists; he hit Plaintiff in the left side of his back with hi fist about 4 times; and he bit the left side of his back with his right knee about 3-4 times. Plaintiff tried to protect himself but never retaliated.
At one point, somebody yelled “Ya Stuvo” [a Spanish expression for 'that's enough '] and Defendants stopped the brutal attack except for Vasquez, who continued to use his flashlight again and again beating Plaintiff’s legs and thigh Plaintiff was left lying in the 2700 Module floor incapacitated, in excruciating pain, bleeding, and unable to move. Plaintiff’s face was so puffed he heard a nurse gasp, “he looks like an alien.” He was unable to hold his weight or walk, and a deputy dragged him outside the module to the 2700 floor hallway.
Before reaching a verdict, the jury deliberated for three days, said Willis’ attorney, Sonia Mercado. “This jury was very thoughtful about its decision. It took its time.”
When the three days were up, the jury found that the sheriff, Cruz and the three deputies acted in a way that was “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of [Willis'] rights.”
Asked again about the jury’s decisions, Whitmore reiterated the fact that the department disputes those findings. “Although we do respect juries, this jury got it wrong,” he said.
(You can read the jury verdict yourself here.)
Whitmore also said that Willis was at fault for his injuries. “He was combative and aggressive.”
Although it is common for department heads to be named in lawsuits, for someone like the sheriff to have a monetary judgement levied against him personally is extremely rare—and, in the case of Sheriff Baca, unprecedented.
(Steve Whitmore said that, there is a tangential precedent in that LAPD Chief Daryl Gates was found personally liablee for a part of the damages levied against the City of Los Angeles in a 1992 case.)
According to Mercado, the Willis judgment was made possible by a court ruling for another jail violence case involving an inmate named Dion Starr. Mercado and her partner, attorney Samuel Paz, took this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the Supremes ruled that, yes, Starr could sue Sheriff Lee Baca personally. (Here’s an LA Times story that reports on the 9th Circuit’s earlier ruling on the Starr case, which the sheriff subsequently appealed to SCOTUS, and the Supremes ruled against Baca.)
Now the question is: what will the board of supervisors do? If Baca’s appeal fails, will the Board of Supes pick up his $100,000 damage tab? Or will Baca (And Cruz, et al) have to carry their own monetary weight?
WLA has confirmed that the Supes have been made aware of the verdict, but the full matter of whom should be paying for what, has yet to come officially before them, and none of the Supervisors have, as yet, commented on the matter.
For his part, Whitmore said that the department is confident it will prevail on an appeal. “The deputies actions were completely within department policy,” he said.
Mercado said she thinks otherwise. “It took a jury made up of ordinary citizens to do the job that sheriff Baca should have done, which is to demand that everyone in our jails is treated constitutionally”
28 LA COUNTY JAIL DEPUTIES ACCUSED OF ABUSING INMATES—AND JUDGE ACCUSES SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT OF “WILLINGLY” DESTROYING EVIDENCE.
And in another federal trial involving alleged inmate abuse by deputies—this trial still in progress—one dramatic video has thus far been the plantiffs’ most effective witness.
KPPC’s Frank Stoltze went to court and has more on the story.
Here’s a clip:
Dramatic video of L.A. County sheriff’s deputies firing concussion grenades and pulling bloodied and limp inmates out of their cells at Men’s Central Jail highlight a civil trial now underway in a downtown federal courtroom. On the video, some inmates can be heard screaming in pain.
Deputies extracted prisoners “with such extreme and excessive force that eight inmates had to be hospitalized,” reads a complaint naming a sheriff’s captain, a lieutenant, three sergeants and 23 deputies allegedly involved in the August, 2008 incident. The civil lawsuit by five inmates, which also names Los Angeles County, plays out amid a federal investigation into a possible pattern of inmate abuse at the lockup.
The inmates suffered injuries including a broken ankle, a broken vertebrae, an orbital fracture to the eye area, head trauma and seizures – all as a result of deputies allegedly hitting, kicking and kneeing them, according to the lawsuit and testimony. Deputies struck the inmates more than 100 times, the lawsuit alleges.
“I remember losing consciousness,” said plaintiff Carlos Flores. He said he opened his eyes again when deputies used a Taser gun on him. “The shock woke me up.”
One video shows paramedics treating Erick Nunez, who explained at the time that he suffered his injuries after he “slipped and fell.” In testimony, Nunez said he was afraid to say deputies had struck him.
Stoltze reports that some inmates involved admitted that they had been causing large problems in their cells, breaking sinks, starting fires, and flooding the floor—apparently in protest of some recent harsh treatment by deputies. It seems that the mood in the jails
had gotten tense after the murder of well-liked MCJ deputy Juan Escalante, who had been shot by a gang member outside his house as he was leaving for work. (Reportedly the murder was a case of mistaken identity.)
Another interesting point in the day’s proceedings, reports Stoltze, came near the end of the afternoon when retired LASD commander, Robert Olmsted, was called as a witness. Olmsted, who is challenging Lee Baca for the job of sheriff, had been subpoenaed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys to testify regarding many of the same issues covered in his testimony before the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence, having to do with patterns of use of force he observed and tried to combat when he was commander of LA County’s southern jails. Olmsted was also questioned about the concerns he had about MCJ Captain Dan Cruz and Cruz’s repeated unwillingness and/or inability to rein in deputy brutality.
And still one more dramatic moment reportedly occurred when the judge expressed fury about video evidence that had somehow magically vanished before trial.
U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall has admonished the sheriff’s department for failing to turn over all videos of the incident.
“The Court finds that that fact that these videos clearly existed and are now ‘missing’ is evidence of spoliation,” Marhshall ruled. She found the sheriff’s department willingly destroyed the evidence. “Defendants violated their own video preservation policy.”
In the one existing video, Cruz was evidently shown high-fiving a deputy after a cell extraction that featured a limp and seemingly unconscious inmate.
This trial is expected to last until the end of October.
And there are more lawsuits, and large legal settlements, soon to come.
MEANWHILE, IN SACRAMENTO HEARINGS CONTINUE ON THE TREATMENT OF THE MENTALLY ILL ON DEATH ROW AND ELSEWHERE IN THE CDCR
It seems that even the expert witness seemed shocked at what he was hearing during this week’s court case challenging the reportedly woefully substandard level of mental health care for condemned prisoners and other inmates in California prisons.
Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh of the Sacramento Bee have the story. Here’s a clip:
Justin Alan Helzer’s suicidal tendencies were hardly a secret.
He dropped out of college in 1998 because of suicidal thoughts, according to court testimony. Within two years, he was arrested in the slayings and dismemberment of five Bay Area residents, whose bodies were stuffed into duffel bags and dumped into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He announced during the ensuing trial that he would be better off dead.
Sentenced to die in 2004, his psychotic episodes and delusions continued once he arrived on death row at San Quentin State Prison. He blinded himself in 2010 by thrusting ballpoint pens through both eyeballs, and overdosed twice, with methadone and then heroin.
Despite this, Helzer was never referred for psychiatric treatment and hanged himself in his cell last April, leaving a trail of ignored warning signs that an expert in forensic psychiatry testified Wednesday was unprecedented in his experience.
“I’m sort of losing my ability to adequately express my amazement at how this case was progressing,” Dr. Pablo Stewart testified in federal court in Sacramento as part of a landmark effort by inmate attorneys to make a case for overhauling California’s treatment of mentally ill… inmates.