L.A. County jail abuse trial starts off with vastly different accounts of what happened

The trial of two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies accused of assaulting a handcuffed inmate began Tuesday with attorneys for the deputies and federal prosecutors offering starkly different accounts of what occurred.

The case is the latest in a series of prosecutions of deputies focused on allegations of misconduct and abuse inside the nation's largest jail system.

Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez are charged with violating the civil rights of inmate Bret Phillips by beating him and then fabricating reports about the February 2009 incident.

"It was an abuse of power. It was an abuse of the badge. It was criminal," Asst. U.S. Atty. Jennifer Williams said in her opening statement to jurors. "Their job was to protect and serve, but they did the opposite."

Williams portrayed the deputies as vindictive men bent on exacting payback after Phillips acted out, telling jurors they unnecessarily beat him bloody and unconscious. Phillips, she said, did nothing to justify the use of force and was defenseless with his hands shackled to a chain around his waist.

Attorneys for the men described a far different scenario, saying a combative Phillips left the deputies no choice but to subdue him. And the injuries Phillips suffered were greatly exaggerated by the prosecution's main witness, they said.

Saying the force the deputies used was "entirely appropriate" to deal with a "violent and recalcitrant" Phillips, Aguiar's attorney, Evan Jenness, told jurors that a jail nurse's testimony and a video deputies shot of Phillips minutes after the incident would undermine the government's case.

The trial focuses on a brief encounter nearly seven years ago when Phillips was being held in a special unit reserved for violent inmates or those who might be at risk of being targeted by other inmates. Both sides agree that Phillips was in custody after being arrested on a charge of domestic violence.

But from there the stories diverge. According to Williams, Phillips grew frustrated after Aguiar handcuffed him to a waist chain and left him in his cell instead of taking him to another part of the jail. Phillips, she said, threw a milk carton, hitting Aguiar on his shoe.

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Shortly afterward, Phillips was removed from the cell and the pair of deputies attacked, slamming his head against the wall and delivering punches and blows with a flashlight, Williams said.

"At no time did he fight. At no time did he resist," Williams said.

A Catholic chaplain who often worked in the jail counseling inmates is expected to be the cornerstone of the government's case. Williams said the chaplain, Paulino Juarez, would testify that he witnessed the beating and that it left Phillips unconscious on the jail floor in a pool of blood.

Knowing the chaplain had seen them, the deputies colluded to come up with a story that Phillips had tried to head-butt Aguiar and kicked at the deputies as they tried to subdue him, Williams said.

"They got their stories straight. Remarkably straight. Verbatim straight," she told jurors.

Jenness and Ramirez's attorney, Vicki Podberesky, responded with equally emphatic openings. Aguiar, they said, was escorting Phillips back to his cell after a visit to the jail's medical clinic, when the inmate yelled out that he refused to go into the cell and tried to strike Aguiar with his head.

The force the deputies used, the attorneys said, was only what was needed to gain control of Phillips and was commanded by a supervisor.

They downplayed the significance of Phillips' injuries, at one point showing jurors a photo of small laceration on his forehead that Podberesky said was the worst he suffered. There was no pool of blood and Phillips was "alert and agitated" after he was subdued.

Jail records show Phillips suffered bruising and a cut on his forehead but no fractures, according to a memo by an attorney in the L.A. County district attorney's office who reviewed the beating. A nurse noted scrapes to both of Phillips' wrists and his left eyebrow, the attorney wrote.

Last year, federal prosecutors won guilty verdicts or pleas from five deputies in another jail abuse case. Other deputies are awaiting trial in a third case alleging jail brutality.

The FBI's investigation into claims of misconduct and abuse in the county's jails upended the career of longtime Sheriff Lee Baca, who stepped down in 2014, and led to the indictment of his former top aide on obstruction-of-justice charges. The investigation has so far resulted in the conviction of more than a dozen former sheriff's officials.

The new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, spent his first year in office working to reorganize the agency and to put in place reforms meant to increase accountability.

joel.Rubin@latimes.com

Twitter: @joelrubin

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 20, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Accounts differ in jail abuse trial - Jurors in case of two deputies accused of beating inmate hear disparate testimony." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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