In L.A. County sheriff's jail abuse case, a stark choice for jurors

The federal trial of three Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies accused of unjustly beating a man and lying about it ended as it began: With a fight over handcuffs.

On Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys made their closing arguments, bringing an end to the week-long case and offering jurors vastly different accounts of the 2011 incident that left Gabriel Carrillo pummeled and badly bloodied.

“This case comes down to one thing,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox, one of the prosecutors in the case, told jurors. “Was Mr. Carrillo handcuffed? If he was handcuffed, then there was a cover-up. And if there was a cover-up, then there must have been a good reason for the cover-up.”

On trial are Deputies Fernando Luviano and Sussie Ayala, and their supervisor at the time, former Sgt. Eric Gonzalez. The three face civil rights charges for their alleged roles in the beating of Carrillo, who prosecutors said was handcuffed throughout the violent encounter and did nothing to justify the punches to his face and body and pepper-spraying that deputies delivered.

The deputies and Gonzalez also face charges they lied to cover up their actions by falsely claiming in reports and court testimony that Carrillo was not restrained.

Attorneys for the three defendants urged jurors in their closing statements to dismiss prosecutors' claims as untrue. One of Carrillo's hands had been freed for fingerprinting, the attorneys argued, and he immediately began swinging the dangling restraints like a weapon.

Although the force the deputies used on Carrillo was “ugly and unfortunate,” Ayala's attorney, Patrick Smith, told the jury it was necessary and “for legitimate law enforcement purposes.”

Along with the charges of excessive force and falsifying records that the three face, Ayala and Gonzalez are also accused of conspiring to violate Carrillo's civil rights. Each has pleaded not guilty.

The trial is the first attempt by federal officials to win convictions for physical abuse since they opened a wide-ranging investigation into abuse and corruption inside the county's jail system more than four years ago. Deputies accused in two other cases are awaiting trials and, last year, seven deputies were convicted of obstructing justice for interfering with FBI agents.

In the current case, both sides agreed about the events leading up to the beating. Carrillo and his girlfriend went to Men's Central Jail, the main facility in a network of jails operated by the Sheriff's Department, to visit Carrillo's brother, who was an inmate.

When the pair were discovered in the visitors' waiting area carrying cellphones -- a violation of jail rules and state law -- deputies handcuffed them and brought them into a side room. Carrillo mouthed off repeatedly to the deputies.

From there, however, the stories of what occurred diverge dramatically over the question of the handcuffs.

Prosecutors relied heavily on two former deputies who also faced charges in the case, but struck deals that required them to plead guilty to lesser charges and testify against their former colleagues. The men, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge and Noel Womack, said Carrillo was handcuffed and they detailed how the group colluded to lie about the beating.

While cross-examining the men, defense attorneys tried to portray those witnesses as opportunistic liars who turned on their former colleagues to avoid lengthy prison sentences.

On Tuesday the defense attorneys returned to that line of attack, saying the two men had no motivation to lie initially in their reports on the arrest, but were lying now in hopes of avoiding prison. Smith told jurors they should be “suspicious” of the testimony because the two men were “telling the government what they wanted to hear.”

Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes fired back, saying Zunggeemoge and Womack had lied along with the others after the beating to preserve an unspoken “code of silence” in which law enforcement officers refuse to speak out about misconduct.

“Everyone knew a beating like that was unjustified, illegal and unconstitutional,” she said. “And the only way out of it was to lie. And they knew their partners were going to lie with them because there's a code of silence in law enforcement.”

Carrillo and his girlfriend, who is now his wife, who was also detained by deputies the day of the beating, testified as well. During Carrillo's testimony, prosecutors showed jurors photos depicting injuries to both of his wrists that he said were caused by the handcuffs cutting into his skin during the beating.

Criminal charges brought against Carrillo were dropped shortly before he was scheduled to stand trial. 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.

For more news from the federal courts in Los Angeles, follow @joelrubin.

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