The decades of problems within the Los Angeles County jail system took a new turn this week when a federal-court jury decided Sheriff Lee Baca should be held personally liable for the injuries suffered by an inmate in 2009.
Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore predicted both the verdict and Baca's personal liability of $100,000 would be overturned on appeal.
"Sometimes juries get it wrong," Whitmore said. "This was a huge mistake, and the sheriff will not be held personally liable."
But others who have long been involved in examining jail conditions disagreed and said the jury believed conditions were so bad they needed to send a message to the people in charge of the system.
The federal civil rights lawsuit brought by Tyler Willis alleged he was beaten by deputies with flashlights, punched, kicked and shocked with a Taser, resulting in fractures and head injuries, while he was awaiting trial on charges of lewd acts with a child. He was convicted of those charges.
Jurors found Baca, Capt. Daniel Cruz and deputies Anthony Vasquez, Mark Farino and Pedro Guerrero guilty of violating Willis' rights, and he was awarded $125,000 in compensatory damages. The parties were able to avoid the punitive phase of the trial by agreeing to an additional $165,000, which the defendants divided among themselves, with the other four contributing the $65,000 and the remaining $100,000 to be paid by Baca.
Willis' attorney, Mark Pachowicz, said punitive damages were appropriate because county leaders had failed to correct problems in the jail.
"The whole purpose is to show the defendants did something wrong and they won't do it again," he said. "The whole purpose of it would be defeated if the county pays for it or if it appealed. It would be another example of them ignoring the problem. They ignored it when it happened in 2009, and now they want to ignore what the judge ruled and the jury verdict."
It is rare for a top law enforcement figure to be held personally liable for the action of his officers. State law affords some protection from personal liability, but there are provisions that require individual payments for punitive damages.
Peter Eliasberg, legal director of the ACLU, which first raised questions about deputy violence in the jail system in 2011, said the jury decision sends a strong message to county officials.
"I think what it says is that the problems are so bad that not only should compensatory damages be awarded but punitive as well," Eliasberg said. "What that says is they believed the problems went all the way to the top management, including the sheriff.
"It is very significant that it speaks to the failures of the leadership of the department, and the failures were massive. It said the problem is not just some bad deputies doing bad things but that they were the product of a failure of leadership."
The Board of Supervisors last year received a report from its Citizens' Commission on Jail Violence, which contained a number of recommendations to reform the way its jails are operated. Whitmore said many of the recommendations have already been implemented, and others are in the process.
Eliasberg said it appeared that much of the Willis case rested on the findings of the commission. "If that is the case, I wouldn't be surprised to see it used in other cases that are pending or will be filed," he said.
Another trial against the county is under way in which videos showed prisoners screaming in pain after being shocked with a Taser.
Five inmates -- Heriberto Rodriguez, Carlos Flores, Erick Nunez, Juan Carlos Sanchez and Juan Trinidad -- are suing the county for unspecified damages, saying they suffered skull fractures, broken limbs and other serious injuries while being beaten.
For Baca, the ruling comes at a time when he is also facing a re-election challenge next year that includes former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who once headed the jail system. Tanaka's campaign had no comment on the ruling.
John Thomas, campaign manager for former sheriff's Cmdr.Bob Olmsted, who also is challenging Baca, said it shows the need for a new sheriff. "Sheriff Baca's negligence and mismanagement is costing both the taxpayers and now himself," he said.
Whitmore would not discuss the political impacts of the court ruling but said, "Politics is politics, and what the sheriff deputies and command staff are focused on is getting he message out that our jails are the best they've ever been, and that message will play out over the next several months and reflect the work that Sheriff Baca has done.
"The facts will speak for themselves, whether in the court of public opinion or the ballot box."
The Sheriff's Department, which has a force of about 17,000 deputies, operates eight jails throughout the county, housing some of the most dangerous and violent inmates in the nation.
In September, as an outgrowth of the overcrowding caused by the California Department of Corrections' realignment plan -- a state law mandating certain felons serve their terms in county jails rather than state prisons -- the Board of Supervisors voted to pay the city of Taft, in Kern County, about $11 million a year to house up to 512 male inmates.
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