LOS ANGELES – Opposing attorneys on Friday painted conflicting pictures of injuries suffered seven years ago by a shackled, mentally ill Men’s Central Jail inmate who was brought to the ground, punched and pepper-sprayed by two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies now facing civil rights charges that could land them behind prison walls for at least a decade.
In closing arguments in the federal trial of jail deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that inmate Bret Phillips suffered at least some injuries on Feb. 11, 2009.
The jury was tasked with determining the extent of those injuries and whether they were the result of excessive force.
The prosecution contends that Aguiar and Ramirez set upon Phillips in a gang-style beat-down as retribution for showing disrespect.
Defense lawyers maintain that Phillips was combative and threatening, and their clients did only what was legally necessary to gain control of the inmate.
At the conclusion of the attorneys’ summations, the case went to the jury, which deliberated two hours before adjourning home for the weekend. Discussions are scheduled to resume Monday morning.
“What they did was beat a man and they used their badge to do it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams told the panel. “And now they’re trying to use that badge to get away with it. Do not let them.”
A four-count indictment alleges the deputies kicked Phillips in the head and upper body, struck him with a flashlight, pepper-sprayed him in the face and then covered up their actions in official reports that could have been used to charge the inmate with assault on the deputies.
The reports said Phillips was violent toward the lawmen and refused their orders.
“Their entire version of events is false,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mack Jenkins said. “They’re exaggerating to paint Bret Phillips as some kind of violent animal.”
The defendants did not take the stand during eight days of testimony that included two alleged eyewitnesses and Phillips himself.
“If you want to know the words of Joey Aguiar, you have them in front of you,” defense attorney Evan Jenness told the panel, referring to her client’s contested use-of-force report.
The document, she said, describes “line by line exactly what Bret Phillips did and exactly what (Aguiar) did in response.”
According to the defense, Phillips sparked the run-in as he was being escorted back to his cell after a medical appointment. As he was brought down a hallway, his hands cuffed to a waist chain, Phillips swore at Aguiar — then a 21-year-old rookie — refused to follow orders and attempted to head-butt the officer.
“Restrained punches” were used only to “gain control of a recalcitrant inmate in trying to get him back to his cell,” Jenness said.
The force, she said, was “appropriate” and “proportionate” to Phillips’ behavior. His injuries, she said, were “minimal.”
Prosecutors, however, allege that Phillips was unconscious for most of the event, in which he was said to have suffered a head wound, blunt force trauma to the legs and elbow, and back and spinal cord injuries.
Jenness, though, described Phillips’ injuries as not more than “a little scratch on his forehead.” The “minor extent” of the inmate’s injuries disproves the prosecution’s allegations of excessive force, the defense attorney argued.
In his testimony, Phillips said that at the outset of the incident, in which he was ordered to face a wall, he was choked into unconsciousness by one of the defendants and has no memory of being hit and sprayed.
A jail chaplain and a state prisoner who was then an inmate at the facility told the jury that they were hidden in shadows just feet away from Phillips and the deputies, watching the incident unfold.
The memory was “beat into my brain,” said John Maestaz, the inmate witness. “It was a memory I can see frame-by-frame in my mind — because it was that fierce of a beating.”
Catholic minister Paulino Juarez testified that he also witnessed Aguiar and Ramirez pummeling the handcuffed, unresisting Phillips, leaving the man in a puddle of blood.
“These deputies used restraint,” defense attorney Vicki Podberesky told the jury Friday. “If they wanted to use great force, they could have.”
Podberesky urged the panel to acquit the deputies.
“It’s been seven years,” she said in her closing argument. “Let these two gentlemen have justice.”
Aguiar and Ramirez are the latest of 21 current and former sheriff’s officials to be tried by federal authorities in connection with the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the sheriff’s department.
The probe goes as high as former undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who faces trial in March on conspiracy charges for allegedly managing a secret plan in 2011 to “hide” an inmate-turned-informant from FBI handlers during the jails probe.
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