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Federal Jury Awards $950,000 to Prisoners Beaten at L.A. County Jail

As indicated by this month’s cover story, violence or the threat of violence has long been part of life for prisoners in Los Angeles County’s jail system. An incident that occurred in August 2008, however, demonstrated that the most significant threat of violence comes from correctional staff. Following a contentious five-week trial, on November 7, 2013 a Los Angeles jury awarded $950,000 to five prisoners assaulted by sheriff’s deputies after a protest over conditions at the jail turned violent.

Prisoners Carlos Flores and Juan Carlos Sanchez each received $200,000 in compensatory damages. Juan Trinidad received $150,000, Erick Nunez was awarded $100,000 and Heriberto Rodriguez received $90,000. The balance of the judgment, entered by the district court on February 5, 2014, was for punitive damages.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys conceded that approximately 30 prisoners protesting jail conditions had initially refused to comply with orders from jail staff, who were hit with debris from broken sinks and toilets. However, the attorneys argued that deputies had used excessive force to subdue the protest.

According to the lawsuit, a sheriff’s captain, a lieutenant, three sergeants and 23 deputies were recorded on video hurling concussion grenades and Tasering and beating prone or defenseless prisoners, causing head injuries, broken sinus bones and fractured eye sockets, legs, ankles and hands.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged that the deputies and their supervisors had subjected prisoners to “dehumanizing abuse ... under color of law... [inflicting] brutal and gratuitous force that was unnecessary for any legitimate penal interest and amounted to punishment.” Guards were also accused of threatening to “beat or kill Hispanic gang members” at the jail after Hispanics had allegedly killed a deputy outside his Cypress Park, California home.

At trial, deputy Nicholas Graham conceded during cross-examination that he had hit and kicked prisoners 17 to 35 times, even after they had been Tasered and were lying on the floor. His own report indicated the prisoners had not been fighting back, though he still denied having used excessive force.

The jail’s surveillance video footage contradicted his denial, however, despite the fact that not all of the recordings of cell extractions mandated by jail rules were available for inspection, having been inexplicably “lost.”

Corrections expert Steve Martin, testifying for the plaintiffs, examined the existing videos and said the prisoners could have only engaged in “defensive or survival resistance” due to their state of restraint. The plaintiffs’ attorneys alleged that “at some point during the beatings ... a defendant supervisor was heard telling deputies that none of the inmates should be able to walk when they left their cells.”

The Los Angeles County jail employees found liable for damages in the lawsuit included Captain Daniel Cruz, Lt. Christopher Blasnek, Sgt. Michel McGrattan, Sgt. Kelly Washington and deputies Adolph Esqueda, Matthew Thomas, Matthew Onhemus, Andrew Lyons, Michael Frazier, Blake Orlandos, Nicholas Graham, Hector Vazquez, Javier Guzman, Hernan Delgado, Justin Bravo, Francisco Alonso, Clayton Stelter, Joseph Sanford and Alejandro Hernandez-Castanon.

Following the jury verdict the district court denied the defendants’ post-trial motions and they appealed to the Ninth Circuit. While their appeal was pending, on December 26, 2014 the district court awarded a total of $5,378,174.66 in attorneys’ fees, with $9,500 of that amount to be paid from the plaintiffs’ damage award. In November 2015 the court further awarded $39,928.35 in nontaxable costs against the defendants. The case remains on appeal.

The prisoners were represented by the Pasadena law firm of Kaye McLane Bednarski & Litt LLP and attorney James S. Muller. See: Rodriguez v. County of Los Angeles, U.S.D.C. (C.D. Cal.), Case No. 2:10-cv-06342-CBM-AJW.

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Related legal case

Rodriguez v. County of Los Angeles