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Another L.A. County sheriff’s deputy is convicted in jail abuse scandal

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy James Sexton, shown in May, was found guilty by a federal jury on conspiracy and obstruction charges related to a federal investigation of corruption in county jails.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy James Sexton, shown in May, was found guilty by a federal jury on conspiracy and obstruction charges related to a federal investigation of corruption in county jails.
(KABC-TV)

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted a seventh sheriff’s deputy of obstructing a federal civil-rights investigation into excessive force and corruption inside the Los Angeles County jails, delivering a victory to prosecutors as they continue their probe into the lockups.

Jurors deliberated for just over two hours before returning guilty verdicts on conspiracy and obstruction charges against Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy James Sexton, 29. The deputy stared straight down at a legal pad on the desk in front of him as the verdict was read, and the judge set his sentencing for December. Afterward, he calmly whispered to his tearful wife: “It’s going to be OK.”

A different jury failed to reach a verdict on charges against Sexton earlier this year, deadlocking 6 to 6.

Six of Sexton’s colleagues, including a lieutenant to whom he reported, were convicted of obstruction charges in July for their role in what prosecutors said was a conspiracy to thwart the FBI’s investigation and ensure that any probe be conducted internally by the Sheriff’s Department.

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Prosecutors accused Sexton and the others of conspiring to hide a federal informant, an inmate at Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, from his FBI handlers by moving him around in the jails under fake names. Sexton was instrumental, they alleged, because of his knowledge of the inmate booking system and, as the deputy once told an FBI agent, his ability to “keep [his] mouth shut.”

Sheriff’s officials became aware of the informant after they discovered a cellphone agents had smuggled into the inmate through a corrupt deputy.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes told jurors in closing arguments Tuesday the federal probe was necessary because the Sheriff’s Department-run jails had a “systemic, overarching, major and widespread problem … a pattern of abuse, coverup, abuse and coverup.”

“These potential thugs and criminals had a badge,” she said.

Even though Sexton was the most junior of the sheriff’s officials accused in the case, his remarks in internal emails and in testimony before the grand jury made clear that he acted with the intent to get in the way of the federal investigation, Rhodes argued. She pointed to an email in which Sexton referred to the moving, renaming and standing watch over the inmate informant, Anthony Brown, as “Operation Pandora’s Box.”

“It was James Sexton’s name for the operation,” she said. “James Sexton’s intent was to keep everything in-house.”

Sexton’s attorney, former U.S. Atty. Thomas O’Brien, countered that his client was an “inexperienced, eager deputy” in a quasi-military organization carrying out orders from above. He asked jurors to consider those who weren’t facing charges, including then-Sheriff Lee Baca and his second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, now a candidate for sheriff in the November election.

“Like many foot soldiers, [Sexton] didn’t get to sit in on the meeting with the generals,” O’Brien argued.

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O’Brien dismissed Sexton’s testimony before the grand jury in which he said deputies considered the federal government their adversaries and engaged in a “smoke-and-mirrors” scheme to keep the inmate hidden. The attorney said the young deputy had been “like Walter Mitty, puffing himself up.”

Prosecutors noted that Tanaka, in his testimony at trial, said he did not give deputies orders to keep the informant hidden from the FBI or to move him around within the jails.

Tanaka, who prosecutors have previously identified as a subject in the ongoing investigation, also testified that he “didn’t see anything improper” about the deputies’ actions.

Sexton faces a maximum of 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 1. The six other convicted sheriff’s officials — two lieutenants, two sergeants and two deputies — are scheduled to appear for sentencing Monday. Prosecutors are seeking prison terms of 28 months to five years for the six.

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.


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