Federal prosecutors plan to retry two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies on excessive force charges in the beating of a jail inmate, according to documents obtained Friday by City News Service.
Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez were found guilty Tuesday of falsifying records about the 2009 beating of the inmate, but the panel deadlocked on whether the deputies used excessive force. The jury acquitted the deputies of conspiring to violate the inmate’s civil rights.
Federal prosecutors filed notice with the court late Thursday that they will retry Aguiar and Ramirez on a charge of deprivation of rights under color of law, which carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison.
Following an eight-day trial, jurors hung on the count, with 10 panelists voting to convict.
Vicki Podberesky, Ramirez’s attorney, said the civil rights charges were the heart of the prosecution’s case, so the decision to retry the deputies was not a surprise.
“I don’t think they (the prosecutors) expected it to end up this way,” she said. “We’re going to take a step back and reassess the evidence we put on.”
Aguiar and 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.
The Feb. 11, 2009, encounter at the Men’s Central Jail was allegedly witnessed by a jail chaplain and an inmate, both of whom testified during the 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.
Jurors said after the trial that the severity of injuries suffered by Phillips was an issue during their deliberations and resulted in the deadlock.
Defense attorneys described Phillips’ injuries as not more than scratch on his forehead, which disproved the government’s argument that excessive force was used.
The prosecution maintained that Phillips 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.
Both witnesses described the beating for the jury as bloody, brutal and totally unnecessary.
“These deputies used restraint,” 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 pending resolution of the case.
—Staff and wire reports
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