Three Los Angeles Sheriff's Department law officers assigned to lockup duty were convicted by a federal jury today of violating the civil rights of a jail visitor who was brutally beaten in 2011. "They beat the man and caused bodily injury," the U.S. Attorney's Office said in a statement.
The jury also found the cops tried to cover up what happened to then–23-year-old Gabriel Carrillo, who had come to Men's Central Jail with his girlfriend, Grace Torres, to visit his younger brother.
The story of the attack on Carrillo was first detailed in a 2011 L.A. Weekly story, which also first revealed to the public at large a gruesome photo (above) of the young man's injuries.
Writer Chris Vogel laid out this version of Carrillo's horror:
With each blow, Carrillo felt his body jerk as his head bounced up and down on the cold, county building floor. He briefly lost consciousness, only to wake to the sting of punches to his head and face.
Through eyes purple with bruises and nearly swollen shut, Carrillo could see blood pouring out of his head onto the floor.
... Finally, Carrillo lay motionless, watching officers wipe his blood off the floor with clean towels, thinking to himself, "How did this happen? All I was trying to do was visit my brother in jail."
After a one-week trial, the jury decided that deputies Fernando Luviano and Sussie Ayala as well as Sgt. Eric Gonzalez falsified records of the beating and conspired "to violate the victim’s civil rights by using unreasonable force," according to the U.S. Attorneys' statement.
Two other cops accused in the case pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.
"What was so incredible was that these deputies were willing to misuse their authority because they felt Gabriel didn't give them respect," said ACLU of Southern California legal director Peter Eliasberg, who helped Carrillo find an attorney after Vogel brought his story to the civil liberties nonprofit.
"They were willing to lie and take away his liberty," Eliasberg said. "They were willing to send him off to state prison because they had a badge and they felt they could do what they wanted to."
Eliasberg also lambasted the office of then–District Attorney Steve Cooley for moving forward with a resisting-arrest case against Carrillo (it was eventually dropped) and for failing to prosecute the law officers involved in the attack.
"It's a real mark of shame on Steve Cooley's tenure in the DA's office," Eliasberg said. "There was never a case he wasn't willing to file against inmates for resisting arrest. We know now, based on what's happened, how much wrongdoing there was by deputies in the jails."
The attack happened after deputies working in the jail discovered that Carrillo and Torres had carried cellphones into the facility, a no-no. Carrillo, placed in handcuffs in a break room, admitted to L.A. Weekly he mouthed off:
"If I weren't in these handcuffs, it'd be a different situation and I wouldn't let myself get thrown around like this," he remembered saying to one deputy, who then called for backup.
Carrillo's right eye was swollen shut, he needed stitches on his forehead, and he suffered chemical burns from a pepper spray–like chemical used by the cops.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, the cops accused Carrillo of trying to escape after he was detained:
Following the incident, Gonzalez instructed Zunggeemoge how to write a report that falsely described how the victim swung his left elbow and struck Zunggeemoge, which prompted the use of force against the victim. Subsequent reports by other defendants also falsely described how the victim attempted to escape from the break room.
Ayala and Gonzalez face as many as 40 years in federal prison. Luviano faces as many as 30 years behind bars. Sentencing is Nov. 2.
Last year Los Angeles County settled Carrillo's beating-related claim for $1.2 million.
The U.S. Attorney's case was part of a federal probe of alleged civil rights violations and corruption in the department of former Sheriff Lee Baca, who resigned but otherwise remains untouched. His No. 2, Paul Tanaka, was indicted last spring for alleged obstruction of justice.
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So far 14 current or former members of the department have been convicted.
Eliasberg of the ACLU says cases like this might be changing the minds of judges and jury members, who constantly give cops' versions of events much more weight in court than they might deserve. In Carrillo's story, it was his word against that of five officers.
"They're not giving the same benefit of the doubt with good reason," Eliasberg said.