Lee Baca

In this 2010 file photo, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca speaks after being sworn into office at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles. (File photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News)

By Rick Orlov, Los Angeles Daily News

Posted: 10/18/13, 7:42 PM PDT | Updated: 22 mins ago

The decades of problems within the Los Angeles County jail system took a new turn this week when a federal-court jury decided Sheriff Lee Baca should be held personally liable for the injuries suffered by an inmate in 2009.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore predicted both the verdict and Baca’s personal liability of $100,000 would be overturned on appeal.

“Sometimes juries get it wrong,” Whitmore said. “This was a huge mistake, and the sheriff will not be held personally liable.”

But others who have long been involved in examining jail conditions disagreed and said the jury believed conditions were so bad they needed to send a message to the people in charge of the system.

The federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Tyler Willis alleged he was beaten by deputies with flashlights, punched, kicked and shocked with a Taser, resulting in fractures and head injuries, while he was awaiting trial on charges of lewd acts with a child. He was convicted of those charges.

Jurors found Baca, Capt. Daniel Cruz and deputies Anthony Vasquez, Mark Farino and Pedro Guerrero guilty of violating Willis’ rights, and he was awarded $125,000 in compensatory damages. The parties were able to avoid the punitive phase of the trial by agreeing to an additional $165,000, which the defendants divided among themselves, with the other four contributing the $65,000 and the remaining $100,000 to be paid by Baca.

Willis’ attorney, Mark Pachowicz, said punitive damages were appropriate because county leaders had failed to correct problems in the jail.

“The whole purpose is to show the defendants did something wrong and they won’t do it again,” he said. “The whole purpose of it would be defeated if the county pays for it or if it appealed. It would be another example of them ignoring the problem. They ignored it when it happened in 2009, and now they want to ignore what the judge ruled and the jury verdict.”

It is rare for a top law enforcement figure to be held personally liable for the action of his officers. State law affords some protection from personal liability, but there are provisions that require individual payments for punitive damages.

Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU, which first raised questions about deputy violence in the jail system in 2011, said the jury decision sends a strong message to county officials.

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