Sheriff's deputy trial centers around FBI informant

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Testimony in the trial of a sheriff's deputy accused of trying to obstruct a federal investigation into jail abuses centered Thursday around the FBI's relationship with a jailhouse informant.

Deputy James Sexton is the first of seven current and former L.A. County Sheriff's Department employees to go to trial for allegedly attempting to obstruct an FBI investigation into corrupt deputies and inmate beatings in L.A.'s county jails. Sexton is specifically charged with hiding an inmate informant, Anthony Brown, from federal agents in 2011 and doctoring records to make him impossible to find. Sexton is also charged with participating in a larger conspiracy to obstruct the federal investigation. 

A federal agent painted the FBI's use of Brown as potentially risky, but crucial to providing prosecutors with physical evidence of serious civil rights abuses and corruption in L.A.'s jails.

FBI Special Agent Leah Marx told the jury that Brown gave information on "more than" 50 use-of-force incidents before being discovered by sheriff's deputies working the jails. 

"He provided a significant amount of information on deputies," Marx said.

Defense attorney Tom O'Brien, however, put a less flattering pall on the relationship, pointing to the $1,500 in phone cards and toiletry money deposited into Brown's account by the FBI over the years. O'Brien also noted Brown's dozen or so felony convictions that have landed him a sentence of more than 400 years in state prison. 

Particularly, O'Brien focused on an FBI sting in which agents smuggled a cell phone with video and photo capability to Brown through an allegedly corrupt deputy sheriff who was later charged for smuggling contraband in an unrelated case.

"The FBI has published reports on the dangers of cell phones behind bars," O'Brien said, even as agents provided one for Brown. The dangers include making it possible for inmates to order crimes on the outside and coordinating unrest in the jails, O'Brien said.

Marx said the FBI monitored any calls or texts sent via the phone and had the option to cancel service at any time. 

Under questioning, Marx also told the jury the FBI had unsuccessfully attempted to outfit Brown with prescription glasses and a cross equipped with hidden cameras to record inmate beatings.

Once the cell phone was found, a group of deputies, including Sexton, figured out Brown was an FBI informant and questioned him repeatedly about the information he'd provided about other deputies, prosecutors said.

The group, some of whom are charged with obstruction of justice, hid Brown by moving him between various  jails under aliases and refusing access to FBI agents who tried to find him, they said.

At one point, two sergeants involved in the alleged conspiracy, Scott Craig and Maricella Long, approached Marx as she returned to her apartment after work. 

A video taken by members of the sheriff's department shows Craig and Long telling Marx they're working on getting a warrant to arrest her for an unspecified felony violation.

Prosecutors have pointed to the incident as evidence of a conspiracy to obstruct the FBI's investigation of the sheriff's department.

O'Brien, however, said sheriff's employees would not have taped the incident if they thought they were doing anything illegal — and that the sergeants were investigating the FBI and Marx for introducing a cell phone into a jail.

Sexton, the man currently on trial, is not pictured in the video. 

A junior deputy three years out of the academy at the time of the incidents, Sexton was recruited to the alleged conspiracy because of his knowledge of the inmate tracking computer system, prosecutors said.

His attorneys say Sexton was following orders from upper-level officials in the sheriff's department and if anything illegal was done, he should not be the one facing felony charges. 

The trial resumes Friday, when prosecutors are expected to rest their case.

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