Every criminal trial is, at its heart, a battle over whose truth will prevail.
In the latest federal trial involving members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which began last Tuesday, the matter of competing truths is particularly dramatic.
The defendants are two LASD deputies, Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, who are charged with punching, kicking, pepper spraying and generally whacking with a flashlight an-allegedly non-resistant former Men’s Central Jail inmate named Bret Phillips on February 11, 2009. Then, after the beating, Aguier and Ramirez allegedly falsified reports to portray Phillips, who is mentally ill, as the violent, out-of-control aggressor whose actions required multiple deputies using various kinds of force to bring him back under control, and who should be prosecuted for his actions.
According to federal prosecutors, Jennifer Williams and Mack Jenkins, on the morning of February 11, 2009, Phillips—who has been formally diagnosed as being both bipolar and schizophrenic—was handcuffed and waist-chained as he was being led back to his cell from a trip to the jail’s medical clinic. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams described it in her opening statement, the inmate was nervous because, earlier in the morning, he’d been left in painfully over-tight cuffs and chains for around half an hour, and had repeatedly called out to deputy Aguier to have the cuffs loosened. When he was ignored multiple times, in frustration, inmate Phillips managed, with difficulty, to pick up a couple of small milk cartons that were in his cell. Then the next time Aguier walked by, Phillips tossed the cartons in the deputy’s direction to get his attention. As nearly as Phillips could tell, one carton struck the deputy’s foot.
Thus when the inmate was on the way back from the clinic, and Deputy Aguier approached Phillips and told him to face the wall, inmate Phillips became frightened that the milk carton tossing incident would provoke a retaliation. And that is, according to Williams, when the alleged beating began, by Aguier and a second deputy, Ramirez, and eventually others. Williams said Phillips lost consciousness somewhere during the event, and never resisted in any way.
“Something terrible happened to Bret Phillips,” said Williams. Although Phillips’ was still cuffed and chained, she said, “he suffered a beating by deputies” who were “sworn to protect and serve. But they did the opposite.”
According to defense attorneys Evan Jenness and Vicki Podberesky, who each gave separate opening statements after the prosecution finished, the incident in question was entirely different than what Williams presented. This “trial is about a necessary use of force,” that was the only way to bring under control a dangerous inmate in the most dangerous unit of the county’s most dangerous jail.
“Even if they are waist-chained, inmates can still use other parts of their body” to attack deputies, said Vicki Podberesky, who represents Ramirez. And that’s exactly what Phillips had done. He said, “’Fuck you, deputy, I ain’t goin’ back!’” Podberesky told the jury. “And then he head-butted the deputy and was taken to the ground,” she said. Phillips also tried to viciously kick Aguier, which his waist chains and handcuffs in no way prevented him from doing.
Another deputy who saw what was unfolding yelled 415! 415! Meaning “a deputy assault was going on.” And additional LASD showed up.
Yes, said Podberesky, deputies struck Bret Phillips in the ribs “two or three times,” to subdue him. They also used OC spray—pepper spray. “Then when that didn’t work, Deputy Ramirez took out a flashlight and struck Bret Phillips in the legs several times.”
But although necessary force was used, and it wasn’t pretty, unlike what the prosecution claimed, Phillips was barely injured, said the defense attorneys. There was no bleeding, no large lacerations, no excessive bruising.
Contrary to what the prosecution said that its witnesses would state, “there was no blood,” said Podberesky. Phillips was not unconscious. He “was awake, alert and agitated,” and photos and a video taken within minutes of the incident will show this, she said.
Furthermore, while the prosecution described a brutal beating given to Phillips by the defendants, in the course of their opening, the defense showed the jury a photo of Phillips’ forehead that was reportedly taken after the incident. It shows what appears to be a comparatively minor laceration with no swelling or bruising to speak of. It is nothing like the swollen, discolored post-beating face of Gabriel Carrillo, the victim of a brutal deputy assault who testified in one of the previous federal trials of LASD deputies. In that case, two deputies and a sergeant were subsequently convicted of assaulting Carrillo in the jail’s visitor’s center. They were also convicted of falsifying reports to cover their actions, portraying Carrillo as the aggressor—as it is alleged in this trial that deputies Aguier and Ramirez have done.
In contrast, when Bret Phillips was released from jail, “he never made a complaint,” about the MCJ incident, said Aguier’s attorney, Evan Jenness. He got that idea from investigators, she said.
“So why are we here?” Jenness, asked the jury rhetorically. The answer: “When you have a witness, if they have biases, they are not reliable.”
Indeed, whichever truth is the right one, the alleged 2009 beating of Bret Phillips would likely never have gotten on the feds’ radar, much less resulted in the October 2013 federal indictment of two deputies, had it not been for the presence of a civilian witness.
Otherwise, it would have been the word of one mentally ill inmate with a record for acting out when he’s off his meds, against that of several working members of the nation’s largest sheriff’s department who either participated in the even or observed it and who, according to the defense, will be showing up to testify.
The civilian witness in this case is a Catholic jail chaplain named Paulino Juarez, who has been working at MCJ providing spiritual counsel for inmates since 1998. Unbeknownst to the deputies involved in the Phillips incident, according to the prosecution, Chaplain Juarez was in the third floor 3500-3700 module just beginning his rounds to visit prisoners on the module, when he heard the encounter with Bret Phillips taking place nearby and, alarmed at what he heard, walked quietly toward the action to investigate.
Juarez normally made those rounds in the afternoon. But on the day in question he had a scheduling conflict, so began his visits in the morning. Thus, according to the prosecution, the deputies failed to notice Juarez’ unexpected presence until after the incident was in full swing, so to speak.
“There was one witness they weren’t counting on,” said prosecutor Williams in her opening. “A chaplain. What he saw was so severe that he thought it left the inmate dead.” And the chaplain “at no time saw the inmate fighting or resisting.”
There are also two former jail inmates on the prosecution’s witness list, both of whom reportedly witnessed whatever happened between the deputies and Phillips.
But it is Chaplain Juarez’s testimony that is arguably the most critical for the prosecution.
THE JITTERY JURORS
For the first couple of days of the trial, it looked as if the government might never get to Chaplain Juarez and its other main witnesses at all. In fact, by Wednesday afternoon, that the possibility that U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell might have to declare mistrial looked increasingly likely, due to a string of jurors who managed to get themselves excused, or tried to get themselves excused, until the court was out of alternates.
First there was a woman who, moments after being sworn in on Tuesday, told the judge she was being treated for anxiety, depression and occasionally hearing voices, so couldn’t concentrate. (She was excused.) Another, failed to mention prior to swearing in that her father was a former probation officer, which she suddenly realized would make her unalterably pro law enforcement. (She too was excused.)
Even before the jury was seated, a diminutive woman who nearly made the panel told the judge that as a practicing Buddhist she “couldn’t condemn anyone,” because we were all here in life to learn. Then, a third juror said after opening arguments that she felt intimidated by the trial’s subject matter and feared that she might be retaliated against by those involved. (She did not specify which side she thought might do the retaliating.) The judge managed to wrangle her into staying. By the day’s end, however, both alternate jurors were used up, meaning if anyone else dropped out, the jury number would fall to eleven and a mistrial could result.
So when on Wednesday morning, a diving stock market drove still another juror to tell the judge that he was in the financial industry, and he couldn’t concentrate due to worrying about his clients who were no doubt freaking out, the judge sent everyone home at midday.
By Thursday morning, the market had bounced back a little, and the financial guy said he’d managed to make other arrangements for his clients, thus a mistrial was averted, and the prosecutors were finally able to call Chaplain Juarez to the stand.
Then, on Friday, Phillips himself was sworn in to tell his story.
To Be Continued…