As the trial of eight Corcoran prison guards accused of staging inmate gladiator fights enters its second week, defense attorneys have begun to lay out a case that the violence at America's deadliest prison wasn't the design of cruel officers.
Rather, Corcoran inmates were so "vile, violent and predatory" that it was nearly impossible for even the most vigilant guards to keep them from fighting, the defense team contends.
Pointing the finger at a vast group of prisoners with no faces or voices in the federal courtroom, the defense is using the government's own witnesses to put Corcoran's violent culture on trial. Sounding at times like prosecutors themselves, attorneys for the eight guards are also blaming official state policy handed down from Sacramento for the thousands of fights between inmates and the hundreds of shootings by guards during a six-year reign of terror at the San Joaquin Valley prison.
Beginning in 1989, defense attorneys contend, the state's integrated yard and shooting policies required guards to mix rival inmates from different street gangs and then to fire at them with deadly force if they refused to stop fighting.
"With that universe of inmates, the fights were unstoppable," said Wayne Ordos, one of nine defense attorneys paid for by the state. "Corcoran was bad for a long time and the violence moved from building to building, irrespective of the officers who were working."
The trial, which is expected to last as long as 10 weeks, is one of the largest prosecutions of prison guards in California history. Federal prosecutors say that former officers at Corcoran will testify that however flawed the integrated yard policy and however violent the inmates, the accused guards engaged in their own perverse games, encouraging fights and deadly shootings.
One former guard and whistle-blower, Richard Caruso, has told The Times and the FBI that one of the officers on trial on charges of civil rights abuses, Timothy Dickerson, would ring a red fire bell to open the exercise yard and announce to inmates over the loudspeaker, "Let's get ready to rumble."
Caruso, an upcoming government witness, said another accused officer, Sgt. John Vaughn, held meetings with gun post officers before the yards opened to review which inmates were going to fight. Caruso said supervisors would bunch up all the fights in the morning hours of their shifts, so the paperwork on each incident could be completed early and they wouldn't have to work overtime.
"Two and three yard fights happened within a 30- to 45-minute time period," Caruso told The Times in an interview before the trial. "It was all planned and it had little to do with the integrated yard policy from Sacramento."
Another whistle-blower, Ralph Mineau, a longtime corrections officer, told the jury last week the fights were so commonplace that he and other supervisors sometimes summoned medical staff members to the yard in anticipation of inmate injuries.
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--more shootings and deaths than at any prison in the country.
The defense strategy of using the years of fights and shootings in an attempt to diminish the responsibility of individual officers apparently persuaded one juror last week to declare that the accused officers were "soldiers of the community." After hearing opening statements and three days of testimony, juror Santo Lopez was dismissed when he told U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii that the guards "shouldn't be questioned. They did their job."
Prison watchdog groups had complained that the jury selection headed by Ishii failed to weed out those favoring corrections officers. The jury of seven men and five women includes one county corrections officer and another juror who recently applied to be a state prison guard.
The federal government's case against the Corcoran Eight hinges on two fights in early 1994 in the infamous 4 A, 4 Left section of the prison's Security Housing Unit. The unit, an extra-secure lockup for gang members and other problem inmates, is watched over by officers sealed off in control booths and armed with assault rifles.
Federal prosecutors contend that the accused officers knew when specific inmates were going to fight and facilitated the brawls by letting the inmates out to the yard and even urging the combatants on with phrases such as, "It's a fight day." "Take care of business." "Do your job."
Four of the guards are charged with civil rights abuses and cover-up in the April 1994 death of inmate Preston Tate, a 25-year-old Crips gang member from Los Angeles. Tate was shot and killed during a two-on-two fight in which neither he nor his cellmate was the aggressor. The bullet, intended for a rival Mexican gang member attacking Tate, struck Tate in the head by mistake and killed him instantly.
Sgt. Vaughn, 44, Officer Jerry Arvizu, 32, retired Lt. Douglas Martin, 54, and Officer Christopher Bethea, 35, face potential life sentences if convicted of conspiring to facilitate the fight and violating Tate's constitutional right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.
Lt. Truman Jennings, 39, and Officers Dickerson, 40, Michael Gipson, 45, and Raul Tavarez, 40, are accused of staging an unrelated fight between a black prisoner and two rival Mexican inmates in the same exercise yard six weeks before Tate's death. Tavarez is also charged with perjury for testifying before a federal grand jury that he never saw a yard fight during his years at Corcoran. They could face 10-year sentences if convicted.
The prosecution's case relies on a handful of key government witnesses yet to be called. Chief among them is a former female corrections officer named Mary Farquhar, who was so traumatized by the Tate shooting that her career effectively ended the day of the killing.
Defense attorneys say there is no evidence that any of the accused officers orchestrated or encouraged either fight, and that Farquhar's testimony will only confirm that. "Let's just say I'm not worried about Mary Farquhar," Ordos said outside the federal court here last week.
Farquhar was a pivotal witness in a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by Tate's family, which ended last year with the state paying an $825,000 settlement.
Farquhar testified in a 1996 deposition that Sgt. Vaughn had a crush on her and that as a way to push their relationship he called her to the 4 A, 4 Left gunner booth the morning of Tate's death. She said he told her a fight was expected to happen and he thought she could use a little "on-the-job training."
Farquhar, who was assigned to another unit but often helped out Vaughn, testified that Tate appeared nervous as he was led out to the yard. Prosecutors say he had reason to be. He and his cellmate, Anthony James, also a Crip, had been moved to the unit only days before and it was stacked with rival Mexican gang members from Southern California. Fights between the two groups were happening sometimes three times a day, and officers were shooting so many wood block rounds from a 37-millimeter gas gun that the yard was known as "Little Vietnam."
Just fifteen minutes before Tate and James were led out to the yard, Farquhar witnessed a fight between another black and a Mexican gang member. If policy had been followed, federal prosecutors argue, the fight should have dictated that the yard be shut down until that afternoon. Instead, Tate and James were released to the yard as one of the accused officers allegedly blurted out, "It's going to be duck hunting season."
Although Farquhar was in the control booth watching the fight with the other officers, Lt. Martin and Sgt. Vaughn never revealed her presence in hundreds of pages of official reports, documents show. Not even when the accused officers were later called before the state's shooting review board did they mention that a female officer had been summoned to the booth that day and witnessed the fight.
"That fight should have never been allowed to happen," Assistant U.S. Atty. Jon Conklin said during the government's opening statements. Conklin is one of four federal prosecutors trying the case, including lead Assistant U.S. Atty. Carl Faller and two attorneys from the Justice Department's civil rights division in Washington. "The officers had a duty to prevent a fight they knew was going to occur."
But defense attorneys contend the prosecution has left a big hole in its case by focusing only on the violence at Corcoran in the months before and after the Tate killing. By failing to underscore that gladiator days were commonplace and that the accused officers were part of a larger brutality, the government has allowed the defense team to co-opt Corcoran's infamy.
Such was the case with the government's first witness, Officer Mineau, the supervisor who helped oversee the Corcoran Security Housing Unit in the early 1990s.
Under extensive defense questioning last week, Mineau acknowledged that the fights were routine and that guards didn't need to orchestrate them. They happened with terrible frequency all by themselves, he said.