The deputies’ brazen lies were exposed in photographs taken a day after Gabriel Carrillo was brutally beaten when he went to the Los Angeles County Jail to visit his brother.
Jurors looked at pictures of the purplish ligature bruises and swelling on both of Carrillo’s wrists and only needed four hours to convict Deputies Sussie Ayala and Fernando Luviano and former Sgt. Eric Gonzalez of using unreasonable force and falsifying records. Ayala and Gonzalez were also convicted of conspiring to deprive Carrillo of his civil rights.
They had concocted a story saying only one of Carrillo’s hands had been cuffed, and had written in their report that he used the other arm to attack them after they had taken him into a separate room to be fingerprinted in February 2011.
Sheriff’s deputies have long benefitted from local prosecutors’ willingness to wink and nod at officers’ assaults in the jails, while prosecutors were more than willing to charge inmates with crimes like resisting officers or assaulting them, based on the sketchiest of claims by those deputies. Thus, the three deputies on trial for beating Carrillo had no reason to doubt that their account of the beating would fall on sympathetic ears.
The jury saw through the deputies’ flimsy justification for breaking Carrillo’s nose and leaving his face battered and bloody, especially after two other deputies pleaded guilty to lesser charges and testified that the deputies’ story was all a lie.
“We all came to the conclusion that he was handcuffed the entire time,” the jury foreman said after the panel returned a guilty verdict. “And therefore the reports must have been falsified.”
If the evidence was so clear to the jury, why was it any less so for former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, whose office declined to file criminal charges against the sergeant and the deputies?
“There is no evidence to suggest that the deputies acted inappropriately,” concluded Cooley’s deputy district attorneys from the Justice Systems Integrity Division, the unit tasked with bringing criminal charges against law enforcement officers. No evidence? Did they see the same photos of Carrillo’s wrists? Or worse, did they see the gruesome photo of Carrillo’s face after the beating?
Whatever they saw was not enough to keep Cooley’s office from charging Carrillo with assaulting the deputies, and he faced serious prison time if convicted, or if he had pleaded guilty out of concern that jurors would take the word of several law enforcement officers over his.
Fortunately, Carrillo’s defense lawyer demonstrated to prosecutors that those specious charges did not pass the smell test – largely by showing prosecutors the photos that proved both of Carrillo’s hands had been cuffed the whole time. Prosecutors then dropped those assault charges just as Carrillo was about to go to trial. He later won a $1.2 million settlement in a civil suit.
What would a trial on those charges have exposed? We now have a good idea after federal authorities stepped in, charged the deputies and won convictions. The federal trial showed just how inept the sheriff’s department investigation of the incident had been. Worse still, it demonstrated that the review of that investigation and the decision not to file charges against the deputies by the Justice Systems Integrity Division was – to put it charitably -- pathetic. That office once again lived down to its reputation of turning a blind eye to police and deputy behavior, however excessive, and allowing them to run amok with impunity.
For decades, prosecutors became, in effect, accomplices by ignoring the routine beating of inmates and visitors. Every time prosecutors found savage assaults justified after only the most cursory investigation, they contributed to a culture of violence that made the county’s jail system, the nation’s largest, a monument to brutality, injustice and inequality. Every time prosecutors charged a badly beaten inmate with assaulting a deputy, they doubled the injustice, buttressing a corrupt system that has no place in a system of justice.
The Carrillo case dramatically illustrates just what a hell hole the county’s jail system had been for so long. The FBI earlier pulled the bandage from this festering civic sore in its wide-ranging probe that so far has led to the conviction of nine other deputies on charges of obstructing a federal investigation. More deputies face physical abuse charges in upcoming trials, and former high-ranking sheriff’s department officials have been indicted on obstruction charges.
Esther Lim, the ACLU of Southern California’s Jail Projects Director, regularly hears complaints that deputies beat inmates while shouting “stop resisting.” It is a ploy deputies routinely use to justify their violence. Lim witnessed one beating when deputies barked those commands to build a phony justification that may have been captured on a jailhouse recording or overheard by other deputies. It is a ruse used often enough that it should arouse investigators’ suspicions. But those suspicions, if they are aroused, are put aside.
After Assistant U.S. Atty. Lizabeth Rhodes won convictions in the Carrillo beating case, she said she would ask that Ayala and Luviano be sentenced to at least 70 months in prison when they are sentenced in November. Gonzalez, who supervised the other two, should serve a longer sentence, she said, because he did nothing to check deputy misconduct in the jail's visiting center.
"I believe that an individual who carries a badge and a gun and who uses their authority and power to violate people's constitutional rights, as was the case here,” Rhodes said, “is one of the worst types of criminals and should be brought to justice."
The verdicts in the Carrillo beating are encouraging, and reform is on the way. The ACLU Foundation of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), the ACLU National Prison Project and the law firm of Paul Hastings LLP have reached a historic settlement in a federal class-action lawsuit that alleged former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and his command staff condoned a long-standing and widespread pattern of violence by deputies against inmates in the jails.
Cooley and Baca are now gone, as is Baca’s former top deputy. Under the consent decree, the sheriff’s department has adopted a detailed plan to reform department policies and practices on use of force. The plan is subject to federal court oversight and enforcement through the court’s contempt powers.
As ACLU SoCal Legal Director Peter Eliasberg has noted, the agreement establishes “clear policies and practices the department must implement, and creates an enforcement mechanism to ensure it does. Put simply, the sheriff’s department must now follow the law or risk court intervention.”
But, we should not forget how bad things really were, and that rather than acting as an important check on illegal behavior by law enforcement, the District Attorney’s office under former DA Steve Cooley actually facilitated what the Citizens Commission on Jail Violence called “a persistent pattern of unreasonable force in the Los Angeles County jails that dates back many years.”
Ed Boyer is media relations manager and Peter Eliasberg is legal director at the ACLU of Southern California. Follow ACLU_SoCal.