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Mistrial for inmate in jail assault case deals setback to sheriff

In a case that has prompted a federal civil rights investigation into allegations of deputy misconduct, a Los Angeles County Superior Court jury this week leaned toward acquitting an inmate accused of assaulting a pair of deputies inside the Twin Towers jail.

The man's defense was bolstered by the account of an American Civil Liberties Union jail monitor who witnessed the incident and said the deputies beat the inmate for two minutes even though it appeared that he was unconscious. A mistrial was declared, and prosecutors, whose case relied heavily on the testimony of the two deputies, have not yet announced if they will retry James Parker.

Michael Proctor, the attorney for ACLU monitor Esther Lim, said the jury's decision "shows the average citizen thought Esther Lim's testimony was right on and very credible and the deputies' testimony was not, and I think that's sad."

"The D.A. should have taken an independent look at this and said 'no thank you,' " Proctor added.

Lim said that she was working in the jail in January, talking to another inmate, when she heard a commotion and saw Parker being beaten by deputies identified as Richard Ochoa-Garcia and Ryan Hirsch. She said the deputies repeated "stop fighting" even though Parker was motionless on the floor "like he was a mannequin." Lim said she did not believe the deputies knew she was there.

The FBI launched an investigation into the alleged beating after she went public with her allegations. Still, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office pressed on with charges against the inmate.

During his trial, Parker, 35, generally hunched over, looking straight ahead and avoiding eye contact with the deputies who have been accused of beating him.

When the deputies took the witness stand, they described Parker as the aggressor, saying that even when they finally got him to the floor, he continued to swing his elbows and tried to push himself up. They have denied any wrongdoing.

According to the department, one of the deputies injured his hand and had swelling on his face.

The prosecutor introduced as evidence audio that was captured on a recorder attached to the stun gun used during the incident. On the recording, at least one of the deputies can be heard shouting "stop fighting!" as Lim reported, but the phrase was not stated in the monotone manner Lim described.

A jury on Wednesday was unable to reach a verdict, but a majority voted to acquit Parker of three counts of battery and resisting arrest.

The hung jury is a blow to the Sheriff's Department as it faces FBI scrutiny of alleged inmate abuse and other deputy misconduct inside its jails.

"The allegations are made up and this man didn't do what they said he did," said Parker's attorney, Damon Hobdy. "To cover it up, they put those charges on him."

Allegations of deputy brutality in county jails are common but hard to substantiate. Generally, the only witnesses aside from other deputies are inmates whose accounts are inherently considered less credible, experts say. Critics cited this incident as a rare instance in which a third party happened to observe.

The FBI investigation into the incident is ongoing and will be presented to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Meanwhile on Thursday, a group of civil rights attorneys and others signed an ACLU letter petitioning federal authorities for a wide-scale "pattern and practice" investigation into the jails. The group included UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Father Gregory J. Boyle of Homeboy Industries, Los Angeles County Public Defender Ronald L. Brown and civil rights attorney Connie Rice.

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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