LOS ANGELES – Two sheriff’s deputies were acquitted Tuesday of federal civil rights charges that accused them of illegally using force against a handcuffed inmate at the Men’s Central Jail, but were found guilty of attempting to cover up the incident in reports.
Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez were charged in a four-count indictment with kicking then-inmate Bret Phillips in the head and upper body, striking him with a flashlight, pepper-spraying him in the face and then hiding their actions in reports that could have been used to prosecute the inmate for assault.
Soon after the attack, the deputies wrote false reports designed to cover up what prosecutors deemed an illegal use of force. Those bogus reports formed the basis of a referral to the district attorney’s office for potential criminal prosecution of Phillips, a Lancaster resident.
The jury, which began deliberating late Friday afternoon, hung 10-2 in favor of guilt on a charge of deprivation of rights under color of law. Prosecutors must now decide whether to retry Aguiar and Ramirez on the charge.
Sentencing is set for April 25 on the false reports count, which carries a potential maximum federal prison sentence of 20 years, prosecutors said.
The Feb. 11, 2009, incident at the Men’s Central Jail was allegedly witnessed by a jail chaplain and an inmate, both of whom testified during the eight-day trial in downtown Los Angeles.
Prosecutors argued that the lawmen set upon Phillips in a gang-style beat-down as retribution for showing disrespect earlier in the day. Defense lawyers countered that Phillips was combative and threatening, and the deputies did only what was legally required to gain control of an unruly inmate.
“What they did was beat a man and they used their badge to do it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams told the panel last week. “And now they’re trying to use that badge to get away with it. Do not let them.”
But according to the defense, Phillips caused the run-in as he was being escorted back to his cell after a medical appointment.
As he was brought down the row of cells, 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, defense attorney Evan Jenness told the panel.
“Restrained punches” were used only to “gain control of a recalcitrant inmate in trying to get him back to his cell,” she said.
The force, she said, was “appropriate” and “proportionate” to Phillips’ behavior.
Jenness 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.
Prosecutors, however, alleged 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.
In his testimony, Phillips said that at the outset of the encounter, 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.
The 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.
But the jury apparently found that the officers did not conspire to deprive Phillips of his right to be free of illegal force.
“These deputies used restraint,” defense attorney Vicki Podberesky told the jury in her final argument. “If they wanted to use great force, they could have.”
Aguiar and Ramirez were 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 Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
The probe goes as high as Paul Tanaka, the former undersheriff, 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.
Aguiar and Ramirez are on unpaid leave from the department and are now expected to be fired.
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