Hoping to convict an Orange County sheriff’s deputy on assault charges earlier this month, a prosecutor presented jurors with an exhibit depicting three monkeys: See no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
The monkeys, prosecutor Israel Claustro argued, represented deputies who witnessed more than they would admit regarding a Sept. 13, 2007, incident in which Deputy Christopher Hibbs fired a Taser at a man who was handcuffed in the back of a squad car.
The prosecutor told jurors that Hibbs used excessive force after the suspect refused to identify himself, and that fellow deputies at the scene had erected a “blue wall of silence” to shield him from conviction on assault charges.
But jurors voted 11 to 1 to acquit the 45-year-old deputy this week, leading to a mistrial. And on Friday, the district attorney’s office dropped the charges, with representative Susan Kang Schroeder citing “inconsistencies and minimization of the evidence” in the deputies’ testimony that would preclude victory at a retrial.
“We believe in the veracity of our case,” Schroeder said. “We believe it’s important for law enforcement officers to act in an ethical way and to follow the law.”
Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said she found the prosecutor’s use of the monkey exhibit “offensive,” and said she was “disturbed” by Schroeder’s remarks.
“It’s an unfair characterization to make that you lost a case because of deputy sheriffs’ testimony,” Hutchens said. She said the Sheriff’s Department had brought the case to the attention of the district attorney in the first place.
She said her department would review transcripts of the deputies’ testimony at Hibbs’ trial, and would conduct an administrative investigation of Hibbs, who has been on paid administrative leave since December 2007.
The case stemmed from an early morning encounter in unincorporated Anaheim between Hibbs and Ignacio Lares, a convicted felon with outstanding warrants, whose dark trench coat struck the deputy as being incongruous on a warm morning.
After a foot chase, Hibbs fired a Taser to subdue the struggling Lares, who had been carrying a loaded 9-millimeter handgun in his pocket. Once Lares was handcuffed and placed in the squad car, however, Hibbs shot him in the leg with a Taser.
Hibbs’ defense attorney, Robert Gazley, argued that Lares -- who was high on methamphetamine -- demanded to be released from the squad car and stuck his foot in the doorjamb in an apparent attempt to escape. The lawyer said Hibbs, in deploying the Taser, “used the lowest level of force” to control the situation.
When Hibbs’ supervising sergeant arrived, Hibbs failed to notify him of the second use of the Taser, an omission that prosecutors seized upon.
The defense attorney said Hibbs was facing an uncommon confluence of “stress factors” that morning, including the presence of a deputy he was training for the streets, and a suspect, Lares, who had punched at him, possessed a gun and had to be subdued at an intersection.
“I wouldn’t want to do that job at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Gazley said. “I don’t think you’d want to either.”
The case marks the latest dispute between the Orange County district attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department.
Last April, a grand jury impaneled by Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to investigate the beating death of an inmate found rampant abuse at the Theo Lacy Jail, which is run by the Sheriff’s Department. In September, Rackauckas accused the department of performing a lackluster investigation into child molestation allegations against a sheriff’s deputy who committed suicide before he could be arrested. The agencies have also fought over control of the county’s DNA database.
“The Sheriff’s Department and the D.A.'s office are having a food fight, and my client became a political pinata in the midst of that food fight,” Gazley said.