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Sheriff Baca spokesman disputes verdict in jail abuse case

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A federal jury made a mistake this week when it found Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca liable in a case involving abuse of an inmate, a department official said.

"We respect juries, but they made a mistake," department spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "This is a mistake that needs to be rectified, and rectified quickly, and we will."

Baca is personally liable for the abuse of a prisoner in Men’s Central Jail in 2009, a jury decided, meaning Baca could be required to pay $100,000 out of pocket.

Attorneys who represented the sheriff's department in the case did not respond to messages seeking comment, but Whitmore said the department planned to appeal.

He said the use of force was "brought on by the inmate" and that deputies had acted within policy.

It is the first time a jury has held Baca personally at fault in a deputy use-of-force case.

Plaintiff Tyler Willis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in October 2010 against L.A. County and several deputies and sheriff's officials, alleging that deputies severely beat him in 2009 while he was a 23-year-old inmate awaiting trial on charges of lewd acts with a child. He was later convicted.

Willis alleged that he was punched and kicked repeatedly, shocked with a Taser multiple times and struck "numerous times" in the ankle with a heavy metal flashlight, causing fractures and head injuries.

After a weeklong trial the jury returned last week with a verdict in Willis' favor. They found that the conduct of Deputies Anthony Vasquez, Mark Farino and Pedro Guerrero, Capt. Daniel Cruz and Sheriff Baca had been "malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard" of Willis' rights, and awarded $125,000 in compensatory damages as part of their verdict.

Rather than go through a second phase of the trial to determine punitive damages, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed to a figure of $165,000. The defendants agreed this week to divide the $165,000 among themselves, with Baca paying $100,000.

Willis' attorneys argued that Baca had failed to heed warnings that letting deputies use heavy flashlights to control inmates could cause serious injuries. They also cited findings by a citizens commission convened to study violence in the county jails, that found that Baca had failed to control use of force in the facilities.

"I think it speaks volumes that members of the jury heard the evidence and said, 'This goes all the way to the top,' " said Mark Pachowicz, one of Willis' attorneys.

It is unusual, but not unheard of, for a jury to find the head of a law enforcement agency liable for the actions of rank-and-file officers.

In 1992, a federal jury found then-Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and nine officers liable for $44,001 in damages in connection with a deadly shooting. A special unit within the police force shot and killed three suspects and wounded a fourth after a robbery at a McDonald's restaurant.

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abby.sewell@latimes.com

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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