The trial of an L.A. County sheriff's deputy for allegedly helping hatch a conspiracy to undermine an FBI investigation into abuse and corruption in L.A.'s jails turned to a central question Monday: whether the group was acting illegally or if their actions were justified.
James Sexton is the first to go to trial of seven current and former members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department accused of obstruction of justice and conspiracy. Prosecutors say Sexton specifically helped doctor county records to make a jail inmate who was working as an FBI unfindable by federal authorities. He's also accused of helping guard the inmate's cell to make sure no one, including FBI agents who were looking for him, could access the informant.
Sexton's defense attorneys, however, argue he acted as part of a legitimate sheriff's department investigation, sanctioned by top department officials, into how the inmate obtained a cell phone. Such phones are not generally permitted in jail--and in this case, the inmate, Anthony Brown, had obtained the phone through a sting operation in which an undercover FBI agent provided the phone to a deputy willing to smuggle it into Men's Central Jail in exchange for a bribe.
"I couldn't believe a facility would be compromised like that," said Captain William Tom Carey of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, called to testify for the defense.
Carey described confusion in the days after the sheriff's department found the phone in Brown's cell--and then received word from the FBI that the phone actually belonged to them and that he was a federal informant. Deputies interviewed Brown repeatedly and his story changed frequently, Carey said, at times alleging FBI agents had also helped him sneak in other cell phones and narcotics.
"We were trying to figure out what was going on," Carey said.
Deputies were ordered to isolate Brown from other inmates and law enforcement because "he needed to be protected from inmates and staff," Carey said.
The group moved him from jail to jail under aliases and fudged records to make it look like he'd been released. They also, according to prosecutors, didn't fingerprint Brown to avoid his prints making their way into a federal tracking database that would have alerted FBI agents to his location.
Prosecutors say there were other ways deputies could have hidden Brown from deputies or inmate who would want to harm him--and that they chose such a method specifically to keep FBI agents who were investigating their fellow deputies from finding him.
Carey said he approved of moving Brown from jail to jail under pseudonyms, though was not aware of the particulars of how deputies did so. He also said he was unaware of a federal court order to produce Brown issued while Brown was being hidden.
Prosecutors indicated Carey is also a target of their ongoing investigation into the episode. He has not been charged.
Closing arguments are expected Tuesday, at which point the case will be sent to the jury for a decision. The remaining six defendants charged in the conspiracy are scheduled to start trial Wednesday.