In a final repudiation of the Sheriff’s Department’s conduct in storming a 1989 bridal shower at the Cerritos home of a Samoan American family, a jury declared Wednesday that the agency engages in policies and practices that have resulted in a “deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights” of the party-goers and other citizens.
The finding by the civil court jury, a little more than two weeks after it ordered Los Angeles County to pay a record $15.9 million in damages to 36 people who jurors ruled were brutalized or falsely arrested by sheriff’s deputies, brought to an end the lengthy trial against the department and 23 deputies.
But it failed to lay to rest troubling questions among jurors about the behavior of county law enforcement authorities, who have never admitted any wrongdoing in the case.
Several members of the racially mixed jury, which heard more than 100 witnesses since the trial began in February, said in interviews Wednesday that deputies and their supervisors repeatedly shaded the truth or outright lied in their courtroom testimony, apparently as part of a lingering cover-up of their out-of-control behavior.
“I always respected and looked up to law enforcement and I was very naive,” juror Lauri Yankowsky, a special agent with a federal government agency, told The Times.
“You always have to ask questions and find out the truth for yourself because you may not always get it from law enforcement,” said juror Keith Williams, a special agent for the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Sheriff Sherman Block, whose department plans to appeal the jury’s findings, issued a terse statement on the results.
“There will be various post-trial motions to be heard by the trial court in the next 30 to 60 days,” the statement read. “Further comment would be inappropriate until the court has had an opportunity to consider these motions.”
Even as the trial has been unfolding, Block has been an outspoken advocate of a legislative proposal that would make it more difficult for victims of police brutality to win large awards. At Block’s urging, Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) has introduced a bill that would cap awards that federal court juries could levy as punitive damages against individual peace officers. “The average cop is less apt to react to instinct and gut feeling because what they have in the back of their mind is, ‘I could face a big lawsuit,’ ” Block recently said, explaining his interest in the bill.
The massive Samoan American court case stemmed from a February, 1989, melee that deputies said began after they received a call about fighting in the street at a shower hosted by Arthur Dole, 67, for his daughter Melinda Dole Paopao.
Deputies testified that when they arrived, family members and friends hurled rocks and bottles at them. Most of the party-goers were handcuffed and held briefly in custody, and three were later placed on trial by the district attorney’s office on charges of rioting and assaulting the deputies.
However, a criminal court jury acquitted the trio, including Dole’s son, David, 35, and additional rioting charges were later dropped against other party-goers.
At the time of the incident, deputies were unaware that a neighbor had videotaped major portions of the incident. That tape served as key evidence at both the criminal and civil trials.
Jurors said Wednesday that the videotape, coupled with transcripts of sheriff’s radio transmissions, clearly contradicted the accounts provided by sheriff’s deputies.
For one thing, said foreman Daniel Hackney, the video, which began rolling minutes after the melee started, showed no sign of rocks or bottles being thrown.
Linking the audio on the videotape with the sheriff’s radio transmissions, jurors also concluded that any throwing of objects would have had to occur during about 90 seconds before the videotape began--a “massive inconsistency” with deputies’ reports that the rock-throwing went on for as long as 20 minutes, Hackney said.
“Everybody in that [jury] room was pro-law enforcement,” said Hackney, 36, an environmental policy analyst for the city of Los Angeles. “We came in hoping to find the best.
“We ended up very disappointed that the Sheriff’s Department apparently covered themselves in this incident,” he said. “Today’s verdict is about saying that we’re finding that there is a practice of law enforcement officers, at least in the context of the Sheriff’s Department, rushing to cover up [for] each other.”
The final ruling in the three-phase trial came two months after jurors decided that deputies used excessive force and made false arrests when they responded in droves to the Dole home wearing riot gear. The jury also determined in June that various deputies injured, conspired to violate the civil rights of or falsely arrested all 36 plaintiffs.
After hearing additional testimony from doctors and employers, the jury issued its $15.9-million award. David Dole, who suffered brain damage from being beaten, was granted $3.8 million, his father $1 million and other party-goers $35,000 to $1.7 million each, depending on the severity of their injuries.
Wednesday’s final ruling came after several more days of testimony from three law enforcement officials, in which portions of the 1992 Kolts report on the Sheriff’s Department came into evidence. That study, overseen by a retired Superior Court judge, found a “deeply disturbing” pattern of excessive force and brutality by deputies, with supervisors routinely tolerating abuse against residents, particularly minorities.
In its ruling Wednesday, the jury voted 10 to 2 that the department, “with deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of persons, [does] maintain, enforce or apply a policy, practice, custom or usage on Feb. 11, 1989, which thereby resulted in the deprivation of a constitutional right of [the plaintiffs].”
The panel had also been due to assess punitive damages against each of 23 deputies held liable for the Dole melee. But lawyers for both sides agreed Wednesday to settle on a total of $35,000 if appeals failed to overturn the jury’s verdict.
The assessments were as follows: Sgt. William Unland, $5,000; Deputies Russell Stamer, Theresa Anderson, Duane Helfrick and Ralph Miller, $3,000 each, and Deputies Priscilla Delgado, Augustin Del Valle, Bryan Flynn, David Halm, John Herrera, Thomas Hicks, Bruce Kirby, Raymond Mades, Mark Repcik, Jon Rhodes, Angel Rodriguez, R.J. Ruvalcaba, Jeffrey Salveson, Phillip Santisteven, J. Toole, Bernell Trape, Barbara Werner and Brian Wilson, $1,000 each.
Paul Paquette, a contract lawyer defending the Sheriff’s Department, said he will ask Superior Court Judge Robert R. Devich to overturn the financial award, which dwarfed the $3.9-million settlement received from the city of Los Angeles by Rodney G. King, whose 1991 videotaped beating at the hands of Los Angeles police sparked national controversy and served as kindling for the 1992 riots.
Devich, who praised the jury Wednesday for its attentiveness and professionalism, is likely to rule on the forthcoming motion within the next two months.