Prosecutors decline to charge California deputies in connection with a 2022 incident involving an injured inmate

Keri Blakinger
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – Two years after a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy was shown on camera slamming a handcuffed inmate’s head into a concrete wall, prosecutors have decided not to charge any of the guards involved.

The district attorney’s office explained the move in a memo last month, saying prosecutors were unable to determine whether the violence was intentional because one deputy claimed it was the inmate’s “own momentum” that “caused his head to contact the wall.” “

The decision came a year after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California released a video of the event at Men’s Central Jail. who posted a 15-second clip of the incident online. The Graphic surveillance video showed the two deputies talking as the prisoner emerged from his cell with his hands cuffed behind his back.

One of the deputies appeared to grab the inmate from behind and slam him against the wall, seemingly without provocation. Photos of the injuries show the man suffered a deep, 3-inch head wound.

This week, Peter Eliasberg, general counsel for the ACLU involved in two long-running class-action lawsuits against prisons, condemned the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute the deputies.

“Being alone is just pathetic,” he told The Times. “But it’s outrageous when you couple it with the history of the District Attorney’s Office coddling the criminal behavior of the Sheriff’s Department.”

He said the ACLU plans to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to take up the case, noting that federal prosecutors have already obtained convictions against other deputies who earlier district attorneys declined to prosecute.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office told The Times in an email that it “takes allegations of misconduct by correctional officers extremely seriously” and reviews each case based on the evidence.

“This office has thoroughly reviewed the allegations in this case,” the email said, adding that prosecutors “have concluded that the allegations cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The sheriff’s department said in a statement Friday that both deputies remain with the department. Now that the district attorney’s office has completed its case, sheriff’s officials will decide whether the deputies violated any policies or procedures.

“The department expects corrections staff to perform their duties in a professional, honest and compassionate manner,” the statement said. “Any person who fails to adhere to our standards of care and violates Department policy will be held accountable.”

Deputies did not respond to emailed requests for comment and it was not immediately clear whether they had lawyers.

The 2022 incident occurred in the maximum security unit of Men’s Central Prison, where all inmates are handcuffed through a crack in the door before being allowed to leave their cells. The rules mandate that they be accompanied by two deputies each time they go outside, “who are required to hold the prisoner firmly.”

ACLU lawyers say it’s the same entity that has since become the site of other problems. On Wednesday, The Times reported that supervisors had nabbed eight deputy officers of a maximum-security unit watching a “sexually explicit film” instead of caring for a suicidal inmate.

One inspector described the apartment as “mouldy” and damp and said the men living there had no books or pens.

“They have absolutely nothing and it’s completely dark,” Oversight Commissioner Haley Broder said in an interview. “Being there for 30 minutes, I don’t know how anyone could survive that.”

According to the prosecutor’s note, the inmate seen in the surveillance video – whose name was redacted – was in a maximum security facility because he had previously threatened deputies with a knife and also had an “extensive history” of assaults on people.

The memo states that on July 4, 2022, deputies Jose Peralta and Johnathan Gutierrez approached the inmate’s cell to escort him to a shower. After handcuffing him and leaving his cell, deputies say he told them, “Don’t touch me.”

Because there is no audio in the surveillance video, it is impossible to tell what, if anything, the three men said. However, according to the prosecutor’s note, Peralta claimed that the inmate threatened to headbutt Gutierrez.

According to Gutierrez, when the inmate left his cell, he quickly moved toward the shower in a “sudden movement” that, according to the memo, surprised the deputy. Gutierrez responded by grabbing the inmate’s forearm and reaching for his shoulder. The inmate then, he claims, “threw his upper body forward.”

It all happened so quickly, Gutierrez said, that his sole focus was on controlling the prisoner. The memo shows the deputy said his right hand “ended up behind” the inmate’s head as he moved forward.

“It was his own momentum that caused his head to hit the wall,” Gutierrez wrote in a use-of-force report that prosecutors cited in their memo.

Eliasberg called this description “clearly false.”

When investigators interviewed the inmate several hours after the incident, he also appeared to dispute the deputies’ description and made no mention of threatening them with a headbutt, but said they had threatened him before.

“I was leaving, the cops pulled me out, I walked forward and he punched me right in the forehead,” he told them, according to the note. “That’s all I remember. Because a policeman told me yesterday that if they get me out of my cell, they will get me out.”

The note said he then told investigators he was taking psychiatric medications and believed he had telepathy. When he couldn’t stay on topic, investigators cut the interview short.

The memo shows that the deputies did not provide voluntary statements to investigators, although both men wrote use-of-force reports that prosecutors reviewed as they evaluated the case.

To prove that the deputies committed a crime, prosecutors wrote, they would have to show that the use of force was intentional, illegal and “not intended to be self-defense.”

But they said the video confirmed the inmate made “sudden movements” and “began moving his body toward the wall before Gutierrez grabbed” him by the neck.

“It is impossible to determine from the video footage whether Gutierrez intentionally slammed” the inmate into the wall or whether “it was accidental,” prosecutors continued, concluding they did not have enough evidence to proceed with the case.

Corene Kendrick, another ACLU attorney involved in prison-related lawsuits, called that reasoning “astonishing,” saying whether the punch was intentional should be left to a jury.

“Whether the officers intentionally smashed the man’s head against the wall or whether he somehow simply hit the wall, as they claim, is for the jury to determine,” she said. “It’s truly astonishing that they thought no crime had been committed here. If a trapped person had smashed the officer’s head against a wall and caused these injuries, I somehow don’t think the district attorney’s office would have declined to file charges.”

Nearly a decade ago, the ACLU raised similar allegations in a scathing July 2015 letter to then-District Attorney Jackie Lacey. The letter focused on the failure of local prosecutors to charge a group of deputies who beat and pepper-sprayed a guest they believed had attacked them in 2011.

District attorneys initially charged the guy – Gabriel Carrillo – with battery on a peace officer and other crimes, but said there was “no evidence to suggest the deputies acted inappropriately.”

After the U.S. Attorney’s Office took over the case, federal prosecutors secured convictions against five MPs, including two who admitted in court that Carrillo was handcuffed during the attack. Carrillo sued and the case was settled for $1.2 million.

The ACLU letter shows that the Carrillo case was part of a broader pattern. The district attorney’s office was quick to charge inmates – often without reviewing the video – but “almost never” charged deputies, the civil rights group says.

Eliasberg said this week that not much has changed.

“This is further evidence of the prosecutor’s reluctance to hold law enforcement accountable for criminal behavior,” he said. “The ACLU will immediately ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate this incident and bring criminal prosecution, as it did in 2011 and 2012.”

Currently, the Sheriff’s Department is subject to several consent decrees resulting from federal lawsuits. One of them, a case known as Rosas v. Luna, began in 2012 when defendants accused of “degrading, cruel and sadistic attacks by deputies on inmates” became a common occurrence. The lawsuit alleged that many of the beatings the deputies suffered were “far more severe than the infamous 1991 beating of Rodney King.”

After three years of legal wrangling, in 2015 the inmates – represented by the ACLU – and the county reached an agreement on specific changes the Sheriff’s Department would implement to reduce beatings behind bars.

Nearly a decade later, there are some signs of improvement as county data shows prison guards punch inmates in the face much less often than they used to. However, the ministry has not yet met all the terms of the agreement. The case continues.

This story originally appeared on Los Angeles Times.

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