The criminal trial of three Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies accused of beating a man and lying to cover up their actions began Tuesday in federal court with prosecutors and defense attorneys offering starkly different accounts of what occurred.
After a morning of last-minute procedural wrangling and jury selection, Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes made her opening statement, telling jurors the case “is about a beat-down in a closed room and defendants who thought if they all tell the same lie, they could get away with it.”
The claims were the first volley in a legal battle that comes four years after a February 2011 incident at the Men's Central Jail. Prosecutors allege that deputies handcuffed and beat Gabriel Carrillo, who had come to visit his brother, after Carrillo was found carrying a cellphone in violation of jail rules.
On trial are Deputies Sussie Ayala and Fernando Luviano and Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, a supervisor at the jail visitor center. All three are accused of using unreasonable force on Carrillo and falsifying records to obstruct justice. Ayala and Gonzalez also face charges of conspiring to violate Carrillo's civil rights.
All have pleaded not guilty.
From the outset, it was clear that the case will hinge largely on Rhodes’ ability to convince jurors that Carrillo was handcuffed at the time of the beating. She referred to the handcuffing repeatedly in her opening statement, saying that the deputies concocted “a phony story” after the beating that Carrillo attacked them when one of his hands was freed for fingerprinting.
Rhodes also zeroed in on a text message Gonzalez sent to another deputy that included a photo of Carrillo’s bloodied and bruised face. In the message, Rhodes said, Gonzalez joked and bragged about the beating.
Attorneys for the three defendants insisted in their opening statements that only one of Carrillo’s hands was cuffed and that he had swung the loose restraints like a weapon. They added that the deputies were rightly concerned that Carrillo’s attempt to carry a cellphone into the facility was possibly a part of larger plot to assist inmates and were justified to subdue him as they did. Their reports and statements on the incident afterward were accurate, the attorneys said.
“They will not be able to prove that Mr. Carrillo was handcuffed in the manner they say he was,” Ayala’s attorney, Patrick Smith, told jurors. “You are going to see nothing but lies from every single witness the prosecution puts on the stand who were at the scene.”
Rhodes wasted no time calling one of those witnesses, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge, a deputy who was involved in Carillo’s arrest. When the case resumes Wednesday morning, Rhodes is expected to lead him through the incident and, presumably, have him say Carrillo was handcuffed.
A federal grand jury initially indicted Zunggeemoge and another deputy, Noel Womack. But both men pleaded guilty to lesser charges as part of deals they struck with prosecutors, which included an agreement to testify.
In the statement he gave prosecutors as part of his plea deal, Womack acknowledged Carrillo was handcuffed during the beating. He also said he copied another deputy's report of the incident to make sure his account was in line with the others, court records show. He added that he watched as Gonzalez laid out all the deputies' reports on a table to compare them and “ensure their consistency.”
Defense attorneys have indicated that they will attack the credibility of the two men, that they are now lying about what happened in an attempt to avoid lengthy prison sentences.
The two sides do not dispute what occurred before the beating: Carrillo and his girlfriend were discovered trying to bring concealed cellphones into the visitor center. They were taken into a side room deputies used during rest breaks, where an angry Carrillo mouthed off repeatedly.
Carrillo faced criminal charges for assaulting law enforcement officers based on the deputies' account of what happened. Carrillo's attorney, however, found evidence that he said showed Carrillo had suffered injuries on both wrists consistent with being handcuffed during the struggle.
The district attorney dropped the charges, and the county later paid Carrillo $1.2 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
Ayala and Luviano have been relieved of duty pending the outcome of the trial. Gonzalez left the department in 2013.