LOS ANGELES – A jail chaplain told a downtown jury Thursday that seven years ago he witnessed Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies punching a handcuffed, unresisting inmate into unconsciousness, but admitted under cross examination that he did not initially know the names of the guards he said were involved in the incident.
Paulino Juarez — who has worked at Men’s Central Jail since 1998 providing spiritual support to prisoners — testified that he watched unseen on the morning of Feb. 11, 2009, as deputies beat the inmate senseless, leaving the man in a puddle of blood.
The Catholic minister said he was speaking to a resident of the “3000” floor of the jail when he turned in the direction of a series of unfamiliar, guttural noises emanating from nearby.
“I see this inmate, his back against the wall, and three deputies in front of him, punching him,” Juarez said, telling the panel that he never saw the inmate putting up any resistance.
Instead, he said he heard the prisoner repeating, “stop, please,” while one of his alleged attackers shouted, “stop resisting, stop fighting.”
However, Juarez said, “he was not fighting,” adding that he could not see the inmate’s hands.
“Finally, he fell,” the chaplain testified. “I could hear the noise of him falling on the floor.”
The dramatic testimony came on the third day of trial for deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, who are charged in Los Angeles federal court with violating the civil rights of a defenseless inmate and then writing false use-of-force reports to cover up their actions.
Juarez is the key prosecution witness in the case, which almost ground to a halt Wednesday when the judge ran out of alternate jurors and a remaining panelist — a broker — came forward to say he could not focus on testimony due to job worries caused by turmoil in the stock market.
U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell on Thursday apparently solved the problem by pushing the lunch hour up to 11:30 a.m. for the remainder of the trial so the panelist can deal with the Dow’s East Coast hours.
In direct examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams had Juarez recount an incident that he said left him frightened and worried.
“I saw something inexplicable — something that I never expected to see,” the minister said. “Something terrible.”
When the deputies noticed they were being watched, Juarez testified, they acted “surprised” and immediately stopped what they were doing.
The injured inmate — identified as Bret Phillips — clearly “wasn’t conscious” by that time, the witness said.
Under cross, attorney Vicki Podberesky attempted to get Juarez to contradict statements given in various accounts of the incident over the years.
In a statement written a week after the event, the chaplain said that he saw Phillips “thrown” to the ground, the defense attorney indicated. She then pointed out that Juarez had subsequently said that the inmate had “fallen” forward.
Podberesky also had Juarez testify that he first learned the names of the defendants from an inmate days after the incident.
In earlier testimony, Juarez told jurors that when he approached a jail sergeant about what he saw, the officer told him that Phillips had apparently spit on one of the deputies, sparking the violence.
In June 2011, Juarez said, he met with sheriff’s department officials and afterwards had a discussion with then-sheriff Lee Baca about the incident.
Aguiar and Ramirez are the latest of nearly two-dozen current and former sheriff’s employees to be tried by federal authorities in connection with a probe into brutality and other misconduct in the sheriff’s department when Baca was sheriff.
Williams told the jury during her opening statement Tuesday that Phillips was handcuffed to a waist chain when he was “smashed” against a concrete wall, kicked and punched in the head and upper body, struck with a flashlight and pepper-sprayed in the face.
Defense attorneys countered that their clients were only doing what was necessary to contain a violent inmate who refused to follow orders.
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