In the first trial stemming from a broad-ranging inquiry into the Los Angeles County jails, a jury deadlocked Thursday on whether a sheriff's deputy obstructed justice by hiding an inmate informant from FBI agents.
The mistrial was a setback for federal prosecutors as they move forward with criminal cases against other low-ranking sheriff's officials, including cases of brutality against inmates and jail visitors, while continuing to investigate higher-level officials. Since December, prosecutors have charged or indicted 20 sheriff's employees in connection with their inquiry.
After less than two days of deliberations, the jury divided six to six on whether Deputy James Sexton should be convicted.
Using Sexton's own grand jury testimony, prosecutors argued that he knew he was breaking the law when he and others kept the federal informant in "dark corners of the jail," then moved the man from jail to jail under a string of aliases.
But Sexton's attorneys said the young deputy, with just three years in the department, was following orders from his superiors, and called former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka to the stand to prove the point.
Next week, opening arguments begin in a second, related trial of six sheriff's officials who prosecutors alleged conspired with Sexton to obstruct the FBI investigation.
Because the second trial is ongoing, prosecutors cannot comment on the Sexton result, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles. At a hearing on June 9, the government will announce whether it will retry Sexton, Mrozek said.
Attorney Thomas O'Brien, who represented Sexton, said the mistrial pointed to weaknesses in the prosecution's case that would come up again with a different jury.
"The government brought its 'A' team and put on the best case it could," said O'Brien, a former U.S. attorney. "Based on the 50-50 split of this jury, I don't believe any reasonable jury would ever reach a different decision against Deputy Sexton."
Juror Marvin Padilla sided with Sexton but still praised prosecutors for pursuing the case, saying they should aim for Sexton's bosses.
"I think the government is right in seeking prosecution. Something untoward happened higher up in the food chain," said Padilla, 38, an architect who lives in Burbank.
Sexton, on the other hand, "just wanted to fit in with the boys," Padilla said. "At the time, he thought they were lawful orders."
Jurors signaled early on that they had reached an impasse, sending U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson a note Wednesday morning, a day after closing arguments. Anderson asked them to take more time and sent them out to lunch to "clear their heads," then adjourned the day's session early after they still could not agree.
Thursday morning, the jurors took only a few minutes to decide they were still deadlocked. This time, Anderson declared a mistrial.
During the weeklong trial, a prosecutor revealed that Tanaka and current sheriff's Capt. William "Tom" Carey, who both testified, are subjects of an ongoing federal investigation. In testimony, Tanaka and former Sheriff Lee Baca were frequently mentioned as having given tacit approval to the steps taken by Sexton and others after a cellphone was discovered in Men's Central Jail in August 2011.
The FBI had provided the phone to an inmate, Anthony Brown, who would use it to communicate with federal agents and possibly to document deputies bringing in contraband and assaulting inmates.
On the witness stand, Tanaka said he believed all the orders he and Baca gave to be lawful, and that he expected his subordinates to obey.
Sexton, now 29, did not take the stand, but his grand jury testimony was read in court. Jurors heard him detail the elaborate steps he and others took to keep Brown away from the FBI. Brown was marked as released within the department's tracking system, then rebooked every 48 hours under a new fake name, crime and physical description, Sexton said.
O'Brien downplayed Sexton's statements to the grand jury, saying the deputy was "puffing himself up" in his eagerness to help federal authorities.
While the mistrial indicates that these are "not rollover cases," there is a silver lining for the government, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
Based on the first case, prosecutors can refine their strategies in the second obstruction case in areas like jury selection, jury instructions and presentation of evidence.
"I thought this was a tough case," Levenson said. "People had been asking the questions, 'Why this low-level guy and not the higher-ups? Did he really intend to obstruct or was he just managing a difficult situation?'"