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L.A. County approves $722,000 settlement in jail suit naming Baca

Lee BacaCourts and the JudiciaryJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeLos Angeles County Board of SupervisorsU.S. Supreme Court

Los Angeles County supervisors agreed to pay $722,000 to settle a civil lawsuit filed by a former jail inmate who said Sheriff Lee Baca showed "deliberate indifference" to dangerous conditions in the county jails.

Dion Starr, 44, said he was stabbed 23 times by Latino gang members while in custody at Men's Central Jail in 2006. Starr's attorney's said Starr -- who is black -- is not affiliated with a gang. Starr argued that Baca's failure to correct security issues in the jails made him ultimately responsible.

Baca fought to be removed from the case, but the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the inmate could sue the sheriff personally, a ruling that paved the way for other cases that sought to hold Baca personally liable. The county's attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court refused to hear the case.

Last month, a federal jury held Baca personally liable for $100,000 in a case brought by inmate Tyler Willis, who alleged he had been severely beaten by deputies while in jail. The department vowed to appeal that case, but it remains unclear whether the county would ultimately pick up the tab for Baca if the verdict stands. 

Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina cast the lone vote against the settlement in the Starr case. Molina said Tuesday at the weekly board meeting that she thought Baca was not doing enough to investigate allegations of inmate abuse and protect the county from litigation.

"I feel the board needs to stop enabling the Sheriff's Department to continue to see its excessive force claims as just another cost of doing business," she said. "...The department continuously finds that every action in the department is 'within policy' when juries continued to find otherwise."

The settlement agreement does not admit culpability on the part of the department or Baca. The board voted in closed session to approve the settlement last week, but details were not released until Tuesday.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the department has put numerous reforms in place since 2006, when the incident involving Starr occurred.

"The sheriff investigates everything thoroughly," he said. "We're investigating now more than ever before. We would respectfully disagree with [Molina's] assessment."

The two deputies who were named in the suit are still working for the department and were not found to have done anything wrong, Whitmore said.

Attorney R. Samuel Paz, who represented both Starr and Willis, said in a statement that Starr's "courage has clarified the law that high officials cannot collect their paychecks and shirk their duties to supervise.  It is simply basic accountability.”

Starr, in a telephone intervew, said he felt his case had helped bring attention to inmate abuse.

"Sheriff Lee Baca is responsible for making sure his subordinates do not engage in unspeakable acts against inmates," he said. 

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abby.sewell@latimes.com

two deputies who were named in the suit are still working for the department and were not found to have done anything wrong, according to Whitmore.

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