Teflon Sheriff

Supreme Court: L.A. Sheriff Lee Baca Can Be Held Responsible for Jail Violence on His Watch

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Mon, Apr 30, 2012 at 11:00 AM
click to enlarge Sheriff Lee Baca
  • Sheriff Lee Baca

Like the "Teflon Sheriff" he is, Lee Baca has been doing his darndest to slip his good name off an inmate-stabbing lawsuit that names Baca as a defendant.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals turned him down last summer, but the sheriff didn't stop there. He marched his don't-blame-Baca paperwork all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming he had no way of preventing...

... the brutal 2006 stabbing and beating of inmate Dion Starr.

But the Supreme Court silently struck down that final attempt at escaping responsibility this morning, letting stand the 9th Circuit's ruling that Baca exhibited "deliberate indifference" to the volatile state of his L.A. County jails.

Here's what a group of Latino gangsters and jail guards allegedly did to Starr, according to 9th Circuit court papers:

A group of inmates gathered at his cell door and threatened to inflict physical harm on him. He yelled for the deputies guarding the jail to come to his aid. Instead of protecting him, a deputy opened Starr's cell gate in order to allow the group of inmates to enter. The inmates entered the cell and repeatedly stabbed Starr and his cellmate with knife-like objects. They stabbed Starr twenty-three times while Starr screamed for help and protection. After the attacking inmates left the cell, several deputies went to Starr. Starr lay on the floor of his cell, seriously injured, bleeding and moaning in pain. One deputy yelled at him, "nigger lay down." While repeatedly yelling "shut up nigger," the deputy then kicked his face, nose, and body numerous times, causing pain, bleeding and a nose fracture. Other deputies stood by and watched. The deputy who kicked Starr subsequently interfered with his ability to obtain medical treatment for his injuries. Starr continues to suffer from and receive treatment for his injuries.

Baca wasn't directly involved, of course, in the racist and power-abusing attack on a black inmate.

But he may have been aware, according to two federal courts now -- and the appeal can't go any higher than the U.S. Supreme Court -- that a culture was brewing inside the jails that could lead to such outbreaks of violence.

If Baca ends up convicted for Starr's trauma, that ruling could set a far-reaching legal precedent. Based on the LA Weekly's own investigations, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of inmates aside from Starr who have been subjected to unthinkable violence and lack of care while under L.A. County Sheriff's Department supervision.

For example, inmate Shawne Fletcher, who's suing the sheriff (with far less expensive lawyers) for another 2006 incident, in which he was allegedly grope-searched and beaten senseless by a pack of deputies at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility while waiting in line to get pills for his mental illness.

The Supreme Court's latest strikedown is also a triumph for ACLU lawyers, who have been trying to sue Baca and his executive staff on the grounds that they "allowed deputies to go unpunished, covered up their behavior and for years made no effort to reform this broken system."

Baca has notoriously passed all real jail policing onto his (underqualified) undersheriff, the shady Paul Tanaka, while claiming he had no idea what was going on behind cell bars all those years.

In one of the most embarrassing interviews we've ever seen from an L.A. County official, Baca told the Los Angeles Times last fall that he never detected the massive stink right under his nose:

"I wasn't ignoring the jails. I just didn't know," Baca said. "People can say, 'What the hell kind of leader is that?' The truth is I should've known. So now I do know."

... Baca said his subordinates have insulated him from "bad news." He said he scolded the subordinate responsible for overseeing the camera project.

"Everyone wants to handle it; they believe it's their job, but handling it and not telling me leaves me vulnerable," Baca said. "I have to be informed."

No more excuses, Baca -- the federal court just opened you up to a mass crucifixion by angry inmates looking for justice.

One interesting excerpt from the 9th Circuit decision, upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court today:

Starr does not allege purposeful discrimination by Sheriff Baca. Rather, he alleges unconstitutional conditions of confinement in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, as incorporated through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A claim of unconstitutional conditions of confinement, unlike a claim of unconstitutional discrimination, may be based on a theory of deliberate indifference. See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825 (1994). A showing that a supervisor acted, or failed to act, in a manner that was deliberately indifferent to an inmate's Eighth Amendment rights is sufficient to demonstrate the involvement -- and the liability -- of that supervisor. Thus, when a supervisor is found liable based on deliberate indifference, the supervisor is being held liable for his or her own culpable action or inaction, not held vicariously liable for the culpable action or inaction of his or her subordinates.

[@simone_electra / swilson@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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