December 26, 2015
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department already was engulfed in a jail brutality scandal when a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office examined the beating of Gabriel Carrillo.
During a visit to the county’s main jail in February 2011, Carrillo had been left badly bloodied and bruised by a group of deputies, who broke his nose and pepper sprayed him in the face. The deputies claimed Carrillo had attacked them; Carrillo denied that and insisted he had been handcuffed during the beating.
The county prosecutor rejected Carrillo’s account.
“There is no evidence to suggest that the deputies acted inappropriately,” the prosecutor wrote in a 2012 internal memo that rejected filing charges against the deputies.
It took an investigation by federal officials to prove the district attorney’s office wrong.
This year, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office secured criminal convictions against five of the deputies, including two who admitted in court that they participated in an assault on Carrillo while he was handcuffed. Three have been given prison terms; two more are expected to be sentenced next month.
District attorney’s officials defend their office’s handling of the case, saying their review was hamstrung because Carrillo would not speak with investigators about the beating.
But Carrillo and his attorney accuse the office of discounting evidence of wrongdoing that proved key to the federal prosecution.
Advocates for inmates rights say the case shows that the district attorney’s office has not been aggressive enough at holding deputies accountable for abuses in county jails at a time when federal authorities and a blue-ribbon panel found evidence of persistent brutality.
“The D.A. is supposed to be a check on illegal behavior by law enforcement. In the jails, we have a very real example of its complete failure,” said Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, the court-ordered monitor in the jails.
Although accusations of abuse of inmates have dogged the Sheriff’s Department for years, prosecutions of deputies for excessive force in the jails have been rare. In the decade before 2011, when the FBI’s investigation into alleged abuses in the jails became public, the district attorney’s office filed only two cases involving inmate beatings. Since then, the office has reviewed scores of abuse claims and filed three cases, district attorney’s records show.
Jackie Lacey, the current district attorney, who held a top post in the office when the decision to clear the deputies in the Carrillo case was made, declined requests to be interviewed or to respond to written questions submitted by The Times.
A spokeswoman said Lacey believes her prosecutors rigorously examine allegations of criminal conduct by law enforcement officers and is confident they make impartial decisions.
In the last two years, federal prosecutors have charged 10 deputies in three separate cases with crimes stemming from alleged assaults on inmates or jail visitors. The first of the cases to go to trial centered on the beating of Carrillo.
That incident began when Carrillo went to Men’s Central Jail, the largest facility in the county’s network of lockups, to visit his brother, an inmate.
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