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Jury Sought for 8 Corcoran Prison Guards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal trial of eight Corcoran prison guards accused of setting up inmate fights for “blood sport” opened Tuesday in U.S. District Court here, the first such case to delve into a controversial state practice that resulted in dozens of inmates’ being shot dead or wounded by guards since 1989.

The trial of the Corcoran Eight is one of the largest prosecutions of prison guards in California history and it unfolds in the state’s farm and prison belt.

In recent weeks, the state’s powerful prison guard union has been running TV spots depicting inmates as predators and Corcoran State Prison as the “toughest beat in the state.” Federal prosecutors have criticized the ads as a blatant attempt to influence potential jurors, a charge that the union denied.

With the eight guards seated side by side, their backs to the wall and their eyes fixed on prospective jurors in the packed courtroom, many of the citizens called as jurors Tuesday said they were all too familiar with Corcoran.

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Some said they had followed national TV accounts of the case or worked in one of the region’s dozen state prisons or had family employed as correctional officers. “Their job is very hard,” one prospective juror told the judge, explaining why he might lean in favor of the accused officers.

During the six- to 10-week trial, jurors will be asked to scrutinize a now discarded state policy of mixing rival inmates in the same tiny recreation yards--and shooting at them when fistfights broke out.

More than 100 people, including the prison’s former warden, top corrections officials, whistle-blowing guards and inmates, are listed as potential witnesses in a case that has captured national attention and was brought to light by stories in the Los Angeles Times that exposed Corcoran as the deadliest prison in America.

From 1989 to 1994, seven inmates were shot dead at Corcoran and 43 others were seriously wounded by guards firing assault rifles to keep fistfights from turning deadly. The high-tech, maximum-security prison in the cotton fields of the San Joaquin Valley, housing inmates such as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, has been the subject of repeated state probes, but not one shooting generated scrutiny by state prosecutors. It wasn’t until the killing of inmate Preston Tate in April 1994 that whistle-blowers came forward and the FBI stepped in.

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Four of the guards are accused of civil rights abuses and a cover-up in the death of Tate, a 25-year-old gang member from South-Central Los Angeles. Federal prosecutors have described the Tate shooting as a kind of gladiator day in which officers and their supervisors gathered in a control booth inside the prison’s Security Housing Unit to watch rival black and Mexican gang members fight.

If the combatants performed as expected and refused to quit brawling, prosecutors allege, guards would use the fight as a pretext to then fire deadly shots. “It is going to be duck hunting season,” one of the accused officers is alleged to have boasted as Tate was escorted to the exercise yard that day, according to prosecutors.

Sgt. John Vaughn, 44, officer Jerry Arvizu, 32, retired Lt. Douglas Martin, 54, and retired officer Christopher Bethea, 35, face potential life sentences if convicted of conspiring to violate Tate’s constitutional rights. Lt. Truman Jennings, 39, and officers Michael Gipson, 45, Timothy Dickerson, 40, and Raul Tavarez, 40, are accused of staging an unrelated fight between sworn enemies in the same exercise yard six weeks before Tate’s death. They face 10-year sentences if convicted.

Defense attorneys say there is no evidence that any of the accused officers orchestrated either fight. They say the incidents were no different from countless other tragic but unintended incidents at Corcoran State Prison during the most violent years. Tate’s death, they say, was the result after officers at the Kings County prison followed orders and carried out a flawed integrated-yard policy handed down from corrections officials in Sacramento.

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“There just isn’t any evidence of a setup,” said Curtis Sisk, a Fresno attorney representing Jennings. “It’s the inmates who decide when and how to fight. It’s the inmates who ultimately chose whether or not to go to [the] yard. It’s their agenda, not the officers’.”

State Stands Behind Officers

The state Department of Corrections is standing behind the officers and in recent years has promoted Jennings to the rank of lieutenant and Vaughn to be a special agent whose job includes investigating other officers.

Tate, a convicted rapist on the verge of parole, was shot and killed by Officer Bethea during a fight in the notorious 4 A, 4 Left block of the prison’s Security Housing Unit, known as the SHU. Corrections officials acknowledge that Tate was shot by mistake and that Bethea’s bullet was intended for a rival inmate attacking Tate. A state shooting review panel cleared Bethea of wrongdoing, but the state paid $825,000 to Tate’s family members in an out-of-court settlement last year.

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Prosecutors allege that in the weeks and months before Tate’s killing, 4 A, 4 Left had become a veritable war zone, with fights breaking out several times a week between members of black and Mexican gangs. Guards knew in advance that the fights would occur and even communicated with superior officers about the would-be combatants, in part to get a head start on the necessary paperwork, several guards who became FBI witnesses allege.

Nearly 100 potential jurors were called to the courtroom in downtown Fresno during the first day of jury selection. The task of finding an impartial jury is no easy matter in a valley where prisons dominate the economy of several small towns and guards are next-door neighbors and Little League coaches. The trial’s opening statements are expected to begin Thursday.

Federal prosecutors declined to comment Tuesday on their case, which relies heavily on testimony from inmates and whistle-blowers, some of whom are tarnished with brutality allegations of their own.

State prosecutors using similar witnesses last year in Kings County failed to win convictions against four Corcoran officers, who were acquitted of allegations that they set up the rape of a problem inmate. Like the judge in that case, U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii has limited inquiry into the prison’s code of silence, which could hamper the government’s ability to show motivation for cover-up.

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“Like the military, it’s hard to establish personal responsibility in prison setting because everything is so bureaucratic,” said Catherine Campbell, a Fresno attorney who represented the Tate family. “The prosecutors must show that this went beyond flaws in the integrated yard policy and it was a perversion of that policy. They have to show that what these guards engaged in was personalized abuse. That’s a tall order because the policy itself was so abusive.”

Richard Caruso, one of five officers and supervisors who went public with allegations of brutality and cover-up at Corcoran, said the officers took advantage of flaws in the policy. In the summer of 1994, after reading an official account of the Tate shooting that characterized the victim as the aggressor, Caruso decided to break the prison’s code of silence. He smuggled an armful of documents out of Corcoran that showed a high level of violence between black and Latino gang members in the building where Tate was gunned down.

The documents, which Caruso handed over to FBI agents during a tense standoff with state prison investigators, detail more than 80 fights in the tiny pie-shaped 4 A, 4 Left exercise yard over a six-month period under the second watch command. This is more than three times higher than any other similar watch, the documents showed.

In court papers, prosecutors say the numbers alone show that guards and supervisors overseeing the unit encouraged the violence and knew the likely outcome of the fighting, that shots would be fired and inmates would be wounded and killed.

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“The likelihood that fights would occur when warring inmates were released into the exercise yard was a phenomenon known by correctional officers and inmates alike,” Assistant U.S. Attys. Carl Faller and Jonathan Conklin wrote in court papers. “With that knowledge, these defendants continued to release such inmates onto the exercise yards where, inevitably, they fought and, in many cases, were injured.”

Issue of Criminal Intent

But defense attorneys argue that prosecutors have failed to establish “individual criminal intent” on the part of the eight officers. “The general foreseeability of violence in a maximum-security prison, and the failure to prevent all incidents of such violence, does not create individual criminal liability,” wrote Matthew Pavone, an attorney representing Vaughn.

As for Caruso as a potential damaging witness, defense attorneys point out that the former guard became the subject of an internal investigation after allegedly beating an inmate in 1994. And they said Caruso was more trigger happy than any other guard at Corcoran, firing wood blocks from the 37 mm gas gun at least 50 times at brawling inmates, they said.

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Caruso said he never fired a real bullet and what he and the other whistle-blowers accomplished--and the harassment and retaliation they endured--speaks for itself. The Department of Corrections recently paid Caruso $1.7 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging retaliation for breaking the code of silence, the largest amount ever given to a whistle-blowing officer in California.

“I don’t need a verdict in this trial to substantiate what I did. Corcoran went from being the deadliest prison in America to not one inmate being shot after we came forward in 1994,” he said. “Turning on the family of law enforcement is one of the toughest things I’ve done. But seeing the changes and results have made it all worthwhile.”

Prosecutors agree that Caruso and other whistle-blowers kept the federal investigation going by telling their story to the Los Angeles Times in the summer of 1996, when the FBI had only a single agent assigned part time to the case. The Times story detailing gladiator days at Corcoran led to then-Gov. Pete Wilson and then-Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren launching special probes of the prison.

The Times later discovered that the twin probes never delved into any of the fatal and serious shootings. The stories prompted a series of state legislative hearings in 1998. An independent panel concluded that nearly 80% of the fatal and serious shootings at Corcoran were not justified and that the state’s system for investigating and prosecuting prison shootings had broken down.

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