In latest case of L.A. jail abuse, trial will focus on alleged beating of handcuffed inmate

The trial of two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies accused of assaulting a handcuffed inmate is scheduled to begin Tuesday, the latest in a series of prosecutions focused on allegations of misconduct and abuse inside the nation's largest jail system.

Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez are accused of violating the civil rights of the inmate, Bret Phillips, by beating him in February 2009. 

Phillips had his hands shackled to a chain around his waist during the attack, according to an indictment handed up by a grand jury nearly two years ago. The indictment accuses the deputies of kicking Phillips in the head and upper body, while Ramirez allegedly also struck him with a flashlight and pepper-sprayed him in the face.

Aguiar and Ramirez also face charges of lying in reports they wrote about the incident to justify the force they used. The deputies allegedly claimed Phillips had to be forcefully restrained after he attempted to head-butt and kick Aguiar.

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Jail records show Phillips suffered bruising and a cut on his forehead but no fractures, according to a memo by an attorney in the L.A. County district attorney’s office who reviewed the beating. A nurse noted scrapes to both of Phillips’ wrists and his left eyebrow, the attorney wrote.

The memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Times, provided additional details about the incident, which occurred in a unit of Men's Central Jail that houses inmates thought to be particularly combative and dangerous.

Aguiar and Ramirez punched Phillips as many as eight times in the rib area, and Ramirez struck the inmate two to three times in the leg and elbow with a flashlight, the memo said. It also named other deputies and a sergeant who allegedly were involved in the incident or wrote reports bolstering the idea that Phillips had been the aggressor.

One of those deputies, Mario Pinedo, is expected to testify on behalf of Aguiar and Ramirez, lawyers for the men said at a recent court hearing.

Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office indicated in court filings that, along with Phillips, other former inmates, and sheriff’s officials, they plan to call to the stand a chaplain who said he witnessed the alleged attack.

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Paulino Juarez, a Catholic deacon who tended to inmates, came forward shortly after the incident to give an account to sheriff’s investigators.  He wrote that deputies kicked and stomped on Phillips as he shouted, "Please stop!"

"I felt that I had witnessed a crime," he wrote.

Attorneys for Aguiar and Ramirez have challenged the accuracy and credibility of Juarez’s recollection, court records show.

Aguiar was relieved of duty in 2012 for an unrelated incident and Ramirez joined him in February 2014, when the indictment was announced, according to sheriff’s officials. Neither has been paid as they awaited trial.

The case was one of several that critics of the Sheriff’s Department said exemplified the failure of top officials to adequately look into allegations of abuse and hold deputies accountable.

Sheriff's officials initially rejected claims the deputies used excessive force on Phillips. The department’s internal watchdog signed off on the department's findings.

A second inquiry by a special Sheriff's Department task force launched in 2011 to review accusations of brutality in the jails submitted its investigation to the district attorney's office nearly a year after the legal deadline for filing criminal charges in state court, according to the district attorney's memo.

Aguiar and Ramirez were not disciplined by the department in connection with the incident, a sheriff's spokesman said. 

Last year, federal prosecutors won guilty verdicts or pleas from five deputies in another jail abuse case. Other deputies are awaiting trial in a third case alleging jail brutality.

The FBI's wide-ranging probe into claims of misconduct and abuse in the county's jails upended the career of longtime Sheriff Lee Baca, who stepped down in 2014, and led to the indictment of his former top aide on obstruction of justice charges. The investigation has so far resulted in the conviction of more than a dozen former sheriff's officials on charges of obstruction and other crimes.

The new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, spent his first year in office working to reorganize the large agency and to put in place reforms meant to increase accountability.

Find me on Twitter: @joelrubin


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