One of the largest difficulties in proving cases of brutality by deputies toward inmates in LA County’s troubled jail system is that, absent a camera, it is the word of two or three or four deputies against that of an inmate.
Even if the inmate is telling the truth, and has injuries that support his story, the deputies have traditionally almost always unfailing supported each other, going so far as to accuse the inmate of criminal wrong doing to support their reports.
Such was the case with the four deputies and one sergeant who were indicted in December 2013 for the cluster of alleged beat downs and brutalizing of visitors to Men’s Central Jail. The case is set to come to trial later this month.
But while the case (known, for short, as U.S. v. Gonzalez) involves accusations of brutality in the LA County jail system, as mentioned above, the alleged abuse was not visited on inmates, but on family and friends who came to visit jail inmates. And it wasn’t one instance, but a series of incidents that involved the same five people, four deputies and one supervisor.
The events described in the charges include the alleged abuse of five different visitors to the jail, in one instance, the bizarre manhandling of an Austrian consular official who, by the way, had diplomatic immunity.
Prominent among the incidents named is the the beating of Gabriel Carrillo, allegedly when Carrillo was in handcuffs and not resisting the officers, after Carrillo had come to the jail to visit his brother.
(Arresting officers had also reportedly beat up the brother. But that’s another story altogether.)
The indictment involving the visitors’ center differs from the other federal indictments alleging abuse inside the LA County jails in that there were civilian witnesses to at least some part of the defendants’ actions. Recently, however, the case gained a pair of very large advantages when two of the indicted deputies abruptly changed their descriptions of events in the process of making deals with the feds.
Joel Rubin at the LA Times broke the story of the deputies’ deals, which are thought to be in return for likely no prison time (although the judge could modify the no-prison part of the deal).
Here’ s clip from Rubin’s story:
Under the terms of the agreement he signed last week, Deputy Noel Womack gave prosecutors a new version of the violent 2011 encounter in a windowless, secluded room in the Men’s Central Jail facility. Deputies, he said, beat the jail visitor even though the man was handcuffed and not resisting as he was held on the floor, according to a copy of the agreement reviewed by The Times.
Womack has agreed to plead guilty to a felony charge that he lied to FBI agents during an interview last month when he told them he did not know if the visitor was handcuffed, the agreement said. He admitted to lying again when he told the agents his supervisor had ordered him to punch the man and a third time when he said the strikes he inflicted on the man had been necessary, the agreement said.
The second deputy, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge, entered a guilty plea earlier this year, court records show. The agreement between prosecutors and Zunggeemoge, who faced several allegations of abuse and dishonesty, was sealed by U.S. District Judge George H. King, keeping its details secret.
The plea agreements mark the first time in the last two decades that a sheriff’s deputy has been convicted in federal court of crimes related to excessive force, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office said. Last year, the office secured convictions against seven sheriff’s officials accused of obstructing the FBI’s investigation into claims of brutality by deputies in the jail.
A Rubin wrote, one of the deals is sealed by the court, but there is some paperwork for the other indicating the changes in the deputies’ stories, in particular the admission that Carrillo was, in fact, handcuffed and non-resistant.
This should be a very interesting trial, involving as it does what the indictment describes as a supervisor—namely former LASD Sergeant Eric Gonzalez—who allegedly created an environment where abuse could flourish. Gonzalez, states the indictment, “would reprimand deputy sheriffs he supervised for not using force on visitors to the MCJ if those visitors had supposedly ‘disrespected'” the deputies through words or conduct.
Gonzalez would also reportedly “encourage” deputies under his command “to make unlawful arrests, engage in unreasonable searches and seizures, and engage in excessive force.”
He allegedly “praised overly-aggressive behavior” by his deputies, and “criticized” those who were not aggressive enough.
Again, these were not inmates against whom the behavior was aimed, but visitors.
And, although it has no real legal bearing on the case, it might be instructive to note that, on Thursday of last week, Carillo’s lawyer, Ron Kaye, announced that his client is being paid nearly $1.2 million by the county to settle his civil rights lawsuit.
NOTE: This story was updated on Monday afternoon, June 1, 2015.