They were mere "worker bees" operating at the direction of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's top brass, following the chain of command and complying with what they believed were lawful orders from far above their pay grade.
That's how defense attorneys for sheriff's officials charged with obstruction of justice portrayed their clients Monday, wrapping up the monthlong trial during which prosecutors tried to persuade jurors the six defendants had engaged in a conspiracy to foil a federal civil rights investigation into the county's jails.
Although the five men and one woman, including two lieutenants and two sergeants, were not themselves charged with civil rights violations, testimony at the trial contained stark revelations about a culture of rampant violence and corruption at the jails that is the subject of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation launched in 2010. Prosecutors alleged that the six worked to hide a federal informant, tamper with witnesses and intimidate an FBI agent, all with the intent of keeping allegations of abuse by deputies from being aired publicly.
Michael Stone, an attorney for Sgt. Scott Craig, asked jurors to consider the people not sitting in the courtroom facing charges — former Sheriff Lee Baca, then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and Capt. William "Tom" Carey, who oversaw Craig's unit at the time.
"Baca knew what was going on … he's the captain of the ship," Stone said. "Where's Baca? Where's Tanaka? Where's Carey?"
Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox said in his rebuttal that whether the defendants were following orders from superiors wasn't relevant, if they acted with the intent to obstruct the federal investigation. "To the extent that they're ever charged, that's for another jury, another day," he said.
Fox did direct part of the blame at the top of the department for what he called "widespread abuse" of inmates, some while they were shackled and chained, and ensuing cover-ups and falsified reports that led deputies to turn to violence with impunity.
"Executives ... either didn't know, or didn't care about the abuse — either possibility equally damning," Fox said, listing the reasons the federal government had an obligation to open an investigation into the jails. "The internal mechanisms were not working."
Baca, Tanaka and Carey have denied any wrongdoing.
A deputy testified at trial that new deputies were taught an "unwritten rule" that inmates who fight with guards should end up at the hospital, and that he was told to lie about witnessing a beating. Another recounted pummeling an inmate who had prostituted his neighbor's daughter, then leaving him in his cell without medical attention.
But even after brutalizing inmates, Fox said, deputies "would keep their guns and badges. They'd keep their fists and flashlights and pepper sprays, with which they'd keep abusing inmates."
Proving such allegations is difficult even in the best of circumstances, but the defendants worked in concert, the prosecutor said, to make the federal investigation "immeasurably tougher."
Lt. Greg Thompson and deputies Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo allegedly moved federal informant Anthony Brown around in the jails, including the infectious disease wing, keeping him hidden under false names when both his FBI handlers and the U.S. Marshals Service, with a grand jury writ, were looking for him. Craig, Sgt. Maricela Long and Lt. Stephen Leavins are accused of telling witnesses not to cooperate with the FBI and threatening to arrest an FBI agent, falsely telling her there was an impending warrant.
"Their purpose was to keep the federal government and the grand jury out, to keep doing the dusting or whatever it was doing to clean their own house," Fox said.
Echoing arguments made by some of the defense attorneys in their closings last week, each defense lawyer Monday contended that their client had been dutifully doing their jobs only as required in a top-down law enforcement organization.
Even Brown, the informant, knew how low Deputy Smith fell on the chain of command, attorney William Genego told jurors. "Go get your boss," Brown told Smith in an interview, Genego noted.
Long's attorney similarly argued to jurors that she was only following orders when she went out with Craig, her partner, to Agent Leah Marx's home.
"She did her job in a lawful way as she had been doing for 23 years," Angel Navarro said.
Stone, Craig's lawyer, said it was Baca who was driving the internal investigation by sheriff's officials. Craig, believing he was conducting a legitimate investigation, recorded each interview and documented every step he took, Stone said.
"What kind of criminal would record every word of their crimes and preserve them?" he said.
The case is expected to be submitted to jurors Tuesday.