In jail abuse case, jury is hung on excessive force but convicts deputies of falsifying records

A federal jury found two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies guilty Tuesday of falsifying records about the beating of a jail inmate but deadlocked on whether the deputies used excessive force.

The deputies were acquitted of conspiring to violate the inmate’s civil rights.

The verdict was a mixed bag for federal authorities after a string of victories in cases that have focused on allegations of misconduct and abuse inside the nation's largest jail system.

Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez were charged in U.S. District Court with violating the civil rights of inmate Bret Phillips by beating him and then lying about the February 2009 incident to cover it up.

Prosecutors argued during the eight-day trial that Phillips had done nothing to justify the assault. They tried to portray the deputies as angry and bent on punishing Phillips for acting out and said that Phillips posed no serious threat since his hands were shackled to a chain around his waist throughout the beating.

Defense lawyers presented a sharply different story, saying the deputies used necessary force to subdue Phillips after the inmate attempted to attack Aguiar.

The deputies acknowledged in internal department reports they wrote at the time that they repeatedly punched Phillips, struck him with a flashlight and pepper-sprayed him in the face. They said Phillips, now 44, had attempted to head-butt Aguiar and continued to struggle after being pinned on the ground.

After nearly two days of deliberations, however, jurors announced to Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell that they could not reach a decision on the question of whether the deputies had gone too far in their use of force.

In a brief interview after the verdicts, the jury forewoman said that 10 jurors were in favor of convicting the deputies on the excessive-force charge, but could not persuade the two remaining holdouts.

Discrepancies between medical records that showed Phillips suffered minor injuries and dramatic accounts of a brutal beating from the prosecution’s witnesses were a stumbling block, said the forewoman, Janet Giampaoli.

“For the two, I think it was that the injuries that we were shown didn’t match up to what the prosecution said happened,” Giampaoli said.

Nonetheless, Giampaoli said the jurors quickly concluded the reports Aguiar and Ramirez submitted about the violent encounter did not accurately reflect what occurred.

The fact that the two reports mirrored each other verbatim in several parts was a red flag, Giampaoli said.

She added that jurors were also quick to decide that prosecutors had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the deputies conspired to violate Phillips' constitutional rights.

The deputies could face up to 20 years in prison on the false-report convictions, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office.

No decision has been made on whether to retry the men on the excessive-force charge, Mrozek said.

The trial centered on a morning nearly seven years ago when Phillips was being held in a special unit of Men's Central Jail used to separate violent and other high-risk inmates from the facility's general population.

Phillips, who testified that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was in custody after being arrested on a charge of domestic violence. He was housed in the high-security unit because he had been an informant while serving a previous prison sentence and was at risk of retaliation.

Two prosecution witnesses — a Catholic minister and a former gang member serving time for manslaughter — testified that they watched the deputies ruthlessly punch and kick Phillips as he lay motionless on the floor. Phillips testified he was attacked after angering the deputies by throwing milk cartons from his cell in frustration.

But Aguiar's attorney, Evan Jenness, and Ramirez’s attorney, Vicki Podberesky, sought to expose inconsistencies between the various accounts of the incident and to cast doubt on the witnesses’ credibility.

The chaplain, for example, made repeated claims of seeing blood on the floor beneath Phillips’ head. In one statement to authorities shortly after the incident, he described a pool of blood about 2 feet wide.

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Podberesky and Jenness zeroed in on medical records, a nurse’s testimony and a video taken by jail staff shortly after the beating, which indicated Phillips had not suffered serious injuries and had not bled significantly from a small cut on his forehead.

A deputy working alongside the men that day testified he saw Phillips try to head-butt Aguiar. The unit’s supervisor took the stand to say he arrived on the scene to find Phillips on the floor trying to break free from the deputies.

Aguiar was relieved of duty in 2012 for an unrelated incident, according to sheriff's officials. Ramirez joined him in February 2014, when the indictment against the men was announced. Neither man was paid as they awaited trial, the department said. It was not immediately clear whether they would be reinstated following their acquittals.

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

Aguiar, who was 21 at the time of the incident, and Ramirez, who was 33, were cleared by department officials of using excessive force on Phillips. The Sheriff’s internal watchdog agreed with the department's findings.

The Los Angeles County district attorney declined to pursue criminal charges in the case after an investigation by a special Sheriff’s Department task force was submitted past the legal deadline.

The U.S. attorney’s case against Aguiar and Ramirez was more tenuous than the one prosecutors built against another group of Los Angeles County deputies accused of beating an inmate. In that trial last year, two accused deputies struck deals with prosecutors and testified against three of their former partners, who were convicted. Other deputies are awaiting trial in a third case alleging jail brutality.

In all, federal officials have won convictions against more than a dozen former sheriff’s officials in cases stemming from the FBI's investigation into claims of misconduct and abuse in the county's jails.

The investigation also upended the career of longtime Sheriff Lee Baca, who stepped down in 2014, and led to obstruction-of-justice charges against his former top aide, who is awaiting trial.

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

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


9:25 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

This article was first published at 5:05 pm.