SCOTUS Declines to Let Baca Legally Off the Hook in Jail Stabbing Case; So What Does That Suggest for Paul Tanaka’s Legal Future?May 1st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon
On Monday, the US Supreme Court rejected without comment an appeal that could have shielded Sheriff Lee Baca from legal responsibility for a pending jail abuse case. The case involves an inmate named Dion Starr who was stabbed 23 times with a jail-made shank by three alleged Latino gang members in a racially charged attack that occurred when Starr was in the 2400 block of Men’s Central Jail awaiting trial on minor charge.
Interestingly, in looking more closely at the chain of supervisory control in Men’s Central Jail at the time of the reported attack against Starr, it appears that any legal exposure might better be shared by Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.
But before we get to that part of the story, it helps to know at least the rough parameters of the case and of the recent action (or more accurately, the deliberate inaction) by the U.S. Supreme Court:
Starr’s complaint states that the attack against him was made possible when a deputy named Jose Garibay, who controlled inmate ingress and egress from the 2400 cells, wrongly opened the door to Starr’s cell, then walked away from his observation post while Starr—who is African American and reportedly has no gang affiliation—screamed and called out for help as the attack continued.
Eventually, other deputies arrived, including a Sergeant Inge, who rapidly stopped the attack. But as Starr lay on the floor of his cell, bleeding and moaning in pain, one of the deputies—Deputy Maybet Bugarin—allegedly yelled racial epithets at him, things like, “shut up nigger.” Then Bugarin reportedly kicked Starr in the face, fracturing his nose. According to the complaint, Sergeant Inge, who was the floor sergeant for the 2000 block, saw Bugarin deliver the kick.
Starr’s attorneys, Sonia Mercado and Samuel Paz, contend that the inmate attacks and the deputy abuse, and the lack of a rigorous follow-up investigation, are part of an ongoing pattern of such incidents in Men’s Central Jail, and that Sheriff Baca had been repeatedly informed about the problems by supervisors, and through reports from people like Mike Gennaco of the Office of Independent Review, and LA County Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, whose 2004 and 2005 reports wrote of similar attacks. One high profile inmate on inmate attack that involved a mentally ill inmate named Chadwick Shane Cochran, had occurred a few months before in November of 2005, in the same 2400 block, of CJ, where Starr was stabbed. Cochran was left incorrectly in a room with 30 inmates some of whom beat him to death, while other inmates screamed for deputy intervention that did not arrive. “It was a systemic failure,” Bobb told an AP reporter of the Cochran case. In short, in the face of a rash of violent and in some cases, fatal incidents, multiple critical outside reports and lawsuits, Baca had not exerted the leadership necessary to put a stop to the problems and to keep inmates safe.
And so he’s liable, said the attorneys.
Last summer, a three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed when it ruled in the case of Baca v. Starr that Dion Starr could hold the sheriff legally accountable for the serious injuries he received on January 27, 2006 in Men’s Central Jail.
That the Supremes declined to fiddle with the 9th Circuit’s ruling was a surprising setback for Baca and his LA lawyer, Timothy Coates. And if Starr and his attorneys are successful at trial, it will open a wide highway for other inmates in jail abuse cases to sue the sheriff directly.
In reading the text of the 9th Circuit’s ruling its evident that, in addition to the justices’ interpretation of legal precedent, they took seriously the detailed line up of similar inmate-on-inmate abuse cases, including five killings in six months in late 2003 to early 2004. Most of the incidents had occurred in CJ when deputies unaccountably allowed the wrong inmates together in a cell or room, and then walked away.
After examining the Starr case, we reviewed our own records here at WitnessLA, and noticed that the timing of Starr’s reported attacks (and some of the other attacks referenced in the case) seemed to logically point to supervisory culpability in addition to Baca’s, namely that of Undersheriff Tanaka.
Starr was injured on January 27, 2006. This means the incident occurred during Captain John Clark’s tenure as head of Men’s Central Jail. If you remember, Clark is the CJ captain who became concerned about spiking levels of deputy use of force and the increasingly toxic deputy cliques like the 3000 Boys, and the 2000 Boys—the latter being the deputies who could have potentially guarded the 2400 block where Starr was housed.
WitnessLA has recently obtained a copy of a February 8, 2006, memo that Clark sent out to the deputies and supervisors in his charge in which he announced a new policy of job rotation that would begin in March of 2006, and was specifically designed to help break up the deputy gangs.
If you’ll remember from Parts 1 and 2 and 3 of Matt Fleischer’s Dangerous Jails series, then Assistant Sheriff (now Undersheriff) Paul Tanaka, reversed the reforms Clark had announced in the memo, and subverted the authority of the captain and his supervisors to discipline deputies for wrongdoing by meeting with the deputies separately and telling them to come directly to him—Tanaka— not their immediate bosses.
We were also interested to note that Clark’s Feb. 8, 2006 memo was sent out 12 days after the attack on Dion Starr, meaning that the Starr incident fell smack within the period during which Clark was the most concerned about deputy misconduct, and was attempting to act constructively to address his concerns—but was thwarted by those above him, specifically Tanaka. That would be the same Tanaka who has, as WLA has reported, often exhorted deputies to “work in the gray.”
With the above events in mind, now that the 9th Circuit has opened the door to holding supervisors like Sheriff Baca legally accountable in jail abuse cases like Dion Starr’s, one cannot help but wonder where the undersheriff’s legal responsibility in such cases might conceivably lie.
LEGAL NOTE: David Savage at the LA Times has an extended report on the Supreme’s ruling that is worth reading.
In it he mentions SCOTUS’s earlier ruling on a similar issue:
In 2009, the Supreme Court made it harder to sue top officials. In a 5-4 decision, it threw out a suit against former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft seeking to hold him liable for the arrest and jailhouse beating of Muslim men after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Ashcroft is considered by many to be a clumsily written ruling. Thus a couple of the lawyers I spoke to yesterday thought that SCOTUS might be trying to at least somewhat amend their Ashcroftian mistake through the back door by declining to take Baca v. Starr, thus allowing the 9th circuit’s precedent-making ruling in the matter to stand.