LA jail scandal: Trial begins for sheriff's deputy

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Trial began Tuesday in a case against an L.A. County sheriff's deputy accused of trying to thwart a federal investigation into inmate abuse and corruption in L.A.'s county jails.

Federal prosecutors say Deputy James Sexton hid a jail inmate working as an FBI informant from federal investigators, moving him from jail to jail under fake names, and was part of a conspiracy to try to intimidate an FBI agent by showing up at her home and threatening her with arrest.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, argue the FBI's "well meaning but poorly planned" jails investigation sparked a turf war between the federal agency and the local sheriff's department, and Sexton was a bit player in a game between high powered law enforcement agencies.

Sexton's charges for conspiracy and obstruction of justice stem from a 2011 incident.

In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Rhodes said members of the sheriff's department working in Men's Central Jail found a cell phone in inmate Anthony Brown's jail cell on August 18, 2011. From there, they figured out that the FBI had provided Brown with that phone — and that he was working as an informant for the federal government.

Immediately, the group of deputies and their lieutenant began a campaign to "shut down" the federal investigation, Rhodes said.

"Now they started down the road to obstructing justice," Rhodes said.

When FBI agents appeared at Men's Central Jail to interview Brown, Rhodes said they were kicked out after an hour "and told they could have no further visits with this inmate."

Despite a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury investigating civil rights violations in the jails, Brown was nowhere to be found, Rhodes said.

Over the next two months, the group, with Sexton's extensive knowledge of the jail inmate tracking system, made it look like Brown had been discharged from jail, while moving him from jail to jail under fake names.

Eventually, when Brown, feeling abandoned, told deputies he was no longer interested in cooperating with the federal government, the deputies rebooked Brown under his own name and Sexton personally delivered Brown to a state prison, where he was supposed to be serving a sentence of more than 400 years for various felony charges.

Defense attorneys have a more innocuous explanation for Sexton's actions, however. Mainly, that he was following orders from much higher ranked sheriff's officials, like former Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. 

"The only crime James Sexton committed was doing his job as he was ordered to do it," said defense attorney Thomas O'Brien. 

Baca, O'Brien said, "was furious" when he learned the FBI had facilitated smuggling a cell phone to an inmate, "who was on the highest security floor in the jail." 

O'Brien said cell phones are dangerous for inmates to have because they can be used to order crimes on the outside. Baca ordered a department investigation into the cell phone, O'Brien said, and ordered that Brown be kept safe.

Moving an inmate and changing his booking info was "standard practice," O'Brien said, to protect an inmate who could be seen as a snitch by corrupt deputies who'd have access to his records and location.

If anything illegal was done, O'Brien argued, the one facing felony charges shouldn't be a low-level deputy who was following orders.

Trial is scheduled to resume Wednesday with a slate of witnesses for the prosecution. When the jury reaches a verdict in Sexton's case, an additional six deputies involved in the alleged conspiracy are expected to go to trial. 

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