Three Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were convicted Wednesday of beating a handcuffed man bloody and then lying to cover up the abuse.
A federal jury deliberated for only four hours before returning guilty verdicts against Deputies Sussie Ayala and Fernando Luviano and former Sgt. Eric Gonzalez, who supervised the incident and boasted about the assault in a text message to a colleague.
The trial, in which two other deputies testified about the coverup and a “code of silence” in law enforcement, was the first public airing of brutality charges to stem from a wide-ranging FBI probe into the county’s jails. Nine other deputies were previously convicted of other crimes, including obstructing the FBI’s investigation.
Rank-and-file officers face more charges of physical abuse in two upcoming trials, while last month former Assistant Sheriff Paul Tanaka, once the second-highest-ranking official in the department, and a captain were indicted on obstruction charges.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who was elected last year amid the jail abuse scandal, said in a statement: “When an employee engages in acts of dishonesty or mistreats members of our community, he or she acts contrary to our mission. This verdict — and the past acts of a few — should not be viewed as a reflection of the integrity, dedication and deep commitment to public service by the many members of this department.”
The weeklong trial centered on the February 2011 arrest of Gabriel Carrillo, who had come with his girlfriend and grandmother to visit his brother, who was an inmate in the Men’s Central Jail. He and his girlfriend were handcuffed and taken into custody after deputies found them carrying cellphones, which is against state law. Carrillo mouthed off repeatedly to the deputies.
From the outset, the case hinged on the question of whether Carrillo was handcuffed at the time of the beating. Prosecutors said he was shackled and had done nothing to justify the barrage of punches and pepper spray that deputies administered as he was pinned face-down on the floor.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, insisted that the deputies and Gonzalez were telling the truth when they wrote in reports that one of Carrillo’s hands had been uncuffed for fingerprinting and that he had attacked them with the loose restraints.
The jury’s foreman, Tony Tran, and a second juror said in interviews that photographs taken the day after the encounter showing dark red abrasions and swelling on both of Carrillo’s wrists were compelling pieces of evidence.
“We all came to the conclusion that he was handcuffed the entire time,” Tran said. “And therefore the reports must have been falsified.”
Only Gonzalez showed emotion as the court clerk read the verdict aloud, leaning forward in his seat and placing his head in his hands. U.S. District Judge George H. King allowed the three to remain free on bond against the wishes of prosecutors, who wanted them taken into custody.
The three are scheduled to be sentenced in November. Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes, the lead prosecutor in the case, said she would ask King to sentence Ayala and Luviano to at least 70 months in prison. The sentence for Gonzalez should be longer, Rhodes said, because he had a pattern of allowing misconduct among deputies to go unchecked in the jail’s visiting center.
The verdicts brought an end to a long, deeply flawed journey for Carrillo through the justice system.
After the beating that left him with his nose broken, bad bruises over his body and bloodied from cuts on his face, Carrillo, 27, was charged with assaulting the deputies based on their fabricated claims. Deputies perpetuated the lies to internal investigators and later testified at Carrillo’s preliminary hearing, helping to convince a judge that the man should stand trial.
Without explanation, prosecutors dropped the charges against Carrillo shortly before his trial was to have begun. The county later paid him $1.2 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
After the Los Angeles County district attorney chose not to pursue charges against the deputies, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office brought the case to a federal grand jury, which indicted them in 2013.
All three were charged with unreasonable force and falsifying records. Ayala and Gonzalez were also convicted of conspiring to deprive Carrillo of his civil rights.
“Gabriel Carrillo is vindicated,” said his attorney, Ronald Kaye. “This man was faced with losing his freedom in prison on false charges. Now the tables have turned and justice finally has prevailed.”
The prosecution’s case relied heavily on two other deputies who also faced charges for their roles in the beating but struck deals with the government that required them to plead guilty to lesser charges and to testify at trial.
Both men told jurors that Carrillo had been handcuffed throughout the violent encounter, and they detailed how the group of deputies followed Gonzalez’s instructions to justify the violence by framing Carrillo.
Their testimony was a coup for prosecutors, who managed to shatter an unspoken “code of silence” that Rhodes said in court forbids law enforcement officers to out other officers for misconduct.
“We were all partners,” one of the now former deputies, Pantamitr Zunggeemoge, testified. “There’s a bond. And you don’t go against your partners.”
Defense attorneys portrayed them as self-serving liars who, as one lawyer said, were “just giving the government what they wanted to hear” in an attempt to avoid lengthy prison sentences.
“We’re obviously surprised,” said Gonzalez’s attorney Joseph Avramhamy. “I’m not sure how the jury came to its verdict. There were a lot of holes in the prosecution’s case.”
During the trial, Rhodes and another prosecutor, Brandon Fox, returned repeatedly to text messages Gonzalez sent to a deputy who had been involved in the arrest of Carrillo’s brother. The brother had been hospitalized for injuries deputies inflicted during his arrest.
Gonzalez sent a photo of Carrillo’s bloodied, cut face and wrote, “Looks like we did a better job. Where’s my beer big homie.”
“Hahaha,” the other deputy texted back.
Times staff writer Ryan Menezes contributed to this report.