Jury deadlocks in federal civil rights trial against Orange County Sheriff’s Department

Orange County Sheriff's Department Headquarters and O.C. jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department Headquarters and O.C. jails are located at 550 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

A federal jury deadlocked in a civil rights and conspiracy trial involving a homeless Marine veteran and seven Orange County sheriff’s deputies after being presented with polar opposite takes on what happened over the course of an unexpectedly lengthy trial.

As Jeremy Holloway tells it, he was rousted from his tent at O’Neill Regional Park on Jan. 21, 2018, and searched without explanation. He complained to a neighbor and went to the rangers station to do the same, only to be visited again by the same deputies, this time angrier than before and with their guns drawn.

Holloway described on the witness stand being knocked unconscious, tasered in the buttocks and kicked and hit repeatedly by a group his lawyer, Narine Mkrtchyan, likened to a gang who targeted Holloway “because he’s homeless. He can’t enforce his rights. So they beat him up like that.”

“I just have no patience for this type of stuff. Tomorrow they’re going to shoot you if you don’t get down on the ground. That’s what this case is all about. It’s not about Jeremy Holloway,” Mkrtchyan said in her closing argument. She referenced her upbringing in what was then the Soviet Union in Armenia and Russia, telling the jury: “I came from a country where you are guilty until proven innocent … This is your time to send a message. Are you going to tolerate this?”

In hours of testimony over the course of two weeks, the deputies — Joel Gonzalez, Mark Borba, Jameson Gotts, Chad Renegar, Kevin Pahel, Justin Gunderson and Brandon Billinger — described a completely different encounter. Deputies first contacted Holloway after reports of a woman being assaulted in a tent at the park, then returned after hearing that Holloway was irately threatening campers for reporting him to police and that one caller heard a little girl screaming.

The deputies said they had to forcibly handcuff him, but the accused lead instigator, Reneger, denied he struck Holloway in the face, which is a key claim of Holloway’s excessive force lawsuit.

Instead, Renegar said Holloway struck his face on dirty gravel when officers took him to the ground after Holloway ignored repeated warnings to comply with their orders. He said he tased Holloway twice “to allow us to place handcuffs on him and to have ‘em stop kicking at us,” according to a court reporter’s transcript of the testimony.

But after a scheduled four-day trial stretched into 11 days over three weeks, the eight people who remained in the jury for deliberations struggled to agree. They took about six hours over two days before declaring themselves deadlocked, but U.S. District Judge David O. Carter read them an extra instruction that urged them to continue discussions. The jury returned the next day and deliberated for another day or so before announcing again that they couldn’t agree.

The judge himself had expressed a similar sentiment. Outside the jury’s presence, Carter told the lawyers he could see the case going either way.

The dismissals follow two years of contentious courtroom battles that included a sanctions request for Mkrtchyan’s deposition of Deputy Chad Renegar.

The deadlock prompted Carter to declare a mistrial. Attorneys are to return to his courtroom next week to discuss the details.

Mkrtchyan told TimesOC she fully expects to retry the case “unless there is an offer to settle.”

“To date, the county has not made an offer. From my conversations with the jury after the trial, there is some fine-tuning and highlighting of some issues I can do for the retrial. We were close to the verdict,” Mkrtchyan said in an email on Wednesday.

S. Frank Harrell of Lynberg & Watkins, who represents the county, said the question of a settlement “is above my pay grade.”

“Orange County has a press office that can help you on their official position,” Harrell said in an email to TimesOC.

During trial, Mkrtchyan grilled Renegar about what she described as a conspiracy between he and his fellow deputies to assault Holloway then lie about what happened.

“And isn’t it true, officer, you were punishing him for verbally challenging you at the first contact when you met him at the campsite? Yes or no?” Mkrtchyan asked.

“No, that’s not true at all,” Renegar answered.

Jurors saw a photo of Holloway’s bruised and cut face, which Harrell described to jurors as “not pretty.”

Harrell said the deputies showed professionalism and restraint when confronted by Holloway. ‘We didn’t want to do this. But our officer safety concerns and the safety for the other campers made it so that if he’s not going to get down on the ground, then we need to do it. We need to get him down there so everybody is safe.’”

Honorably discharged from the Marines in 2000, Holloway was working as a copy-machine repairman and camping out of his truck when the confrontation occurred. He testified that he sought counsel from Paul Walters, the former Santa Ana police chief who now leads Orange County district attorney’s Bureau of Investigation. Holloway said his mother worked for the Santa Ana Police Department for 27 years and Walters “knew our family pretty good.”

“He told me I should seek counsel,” Holloway testified.

“I’ve seen how easy it was for law enforcement to lie and get away with it. If I didn’t push for this, they would have gotten away with putting me in the hospital, and I would be in jail,” he continued.

Harrell said Holloway testified in a deposition that he calmly obeyed them but was assaulted for no reason, apparently not realizing that while they didn’t wear body cameras that night, they did have audio recorders, and the recordings “show that the deputies calmly addressed Mr. Holloway, showed him unfailing respect, tried to get answers as to what has happened.” The second time, with heightened safety concerns, they still “showed him enough respect to tell him to get on the ground. They use a command voice and yes, it is loud.”

Jurors heard the recording several times.

“This tone of voice is supposed to tell anyone, the scientists have told law enforcement, that you need to get on the ground,” Harrell said. “Did it work with Holloway? No.”

The judge dismissed Deputies Billinger and Gunderson as defendants mid-trial after concluding they weren’t involved in a conspiracy, so if the case is retried, only five deputies remain as defendants.

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to TimesOC.

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