LA jail scandal: Mistrial declared in sheriff's deputy trial

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A mistrial has been declared in the federal case against L.A. sheriff's deputy James Sexton, with the jury split 6 to 6.

The case against Sexton is the first of seven cases against current and former members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department who were charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The trial is also part of a larger investigation into misconduct at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department that netted 18 arrests in December 2013.

"We were split six to six, which is consistent with everything we’ve said all along," said Sexton's attorney, Tom O'Brien, who insisted that his client had fully cooperated with federal investigators, meeting with them 37 times and testifying twice before a grand jury.

A juror in the trial told KPCC he didn't think the prosecutor's case was strong enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Sexton was guilty.  

"We dug in our heels pretty early.  Some people switched. There definitely was thoughtful, intense deliberation, and we didn't take any of this lightly at all," the juror said.

Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said the split verdict isn’t a failure for prosecutors either--and might come as a “relief.”

“It’s so difficult to convict law enforcement officers and they started with someone so far down on the chain,” Levenson said. “Of course they would have rather gotten a guilty verdict, but they didn’t walk away with an acquittal either and there’s a lot to learn from the trial that they just did.”

Trial for the remaining conspiracy defendants, whose cases have been joined, began Wednesday with jury selection. Sexton was tried separately because he gave information on other charged deputies to the federal government.

Sexton was one of the lowest ranked members of an alleged conspiracy to thwart a federal investigation into corruption and inmate beatings in L.A.'s county jail system in the summer and fall of 2011.

"Sexton was definitely the low guy on the totem pole," the juror told KPCC. "He was definitely low-hanging fruit for the prosecution.  The other people higher up, I definitely feel something was going on. Whether it’s a conspiracy, it’s not for me to decide."

RELATED: LA Sheriff: 7 defendants in obstruction of justice case plead not guilty

In August 2011, deputies working at Men's Central Jail discovered a cellular phone in the cell of inmate Anthony Brown, and traced numbers on the phone and in Brown's jail phone call history to the FBI's civil rights division. Upon questioning by deputies, Brown eventually revealed he was working as an informant for the FBI. He told federal authorities about use of force on inmates and corrupt deputies willing to smuggle in contraband. Brown also revealed his contraband cell phone had been smuggled in by a deputy as part of a sting operation conducted by the FBI.

What happened next is what prosecutors described as an elaborate conspiracy to shut down the federal investigation into jail abuses — and what Sexton's defense attorneys called a "turf war" between federal law enforcement and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

A group of deputies proceeded to hide Brown and move him from jail to jail under fake names, fudging records to make it look like he'd been released. When the FBI tried to interview Brown, deputies shut the interview down. Weeks later, a pair of sergeants showed up at the home of FBI Special Agent Leah Marx, the lead investigator on the jail abuse case, and threatened to arrest her. According to prosecutors, the group also ignored a court order to produce Brown for testimony before a federal grand jury.

"This was an attempt to have the FBI and Agent Marx stop what they were doing," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret Carter.

The defense argued that while the behavior may have been odd, it was perfectly legal, and those actually executing the alleged conspiracy were just following orders from high-ranked officials playing games with each other.

"This is a case of who's got the biggest badge, and the government overreached," O'Brien told the jury on Tuesday. He described then Sheriff Lee Baca as "furious" the FBI would enter his jails without his knowledge.

Much of the deputies' activity was admittedly sanctioned by higher ups in the department who have not been charged in the case.

"[Sexton] was clearly collateral damage in this particular case, and once again we are glad the jury refused to convict him today," O'Brien said.

Levenson said prosecutors will now have the ability to review the trial and retool their strategy.

“From what kind of jurors to sit on the case and answering the questions that they now know the jurors have,” Levinson said. “Namely, why are you going after this low level person as opposed to the higher ups.”

Former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who's now among seven candidates running for sheriff in the June 3 election, testified in the case that he and Baca knew and approved of hiding Brown, launching an investigation into the FBI, and making it more difficult for FBI agents to access L.A. County jail inmates.

Tanaka, who said he knows he's also the subject of the ongoing federal investigation into the Brown case, said he was either unaware or could not remember the details of how Brown was hidden.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Baca, said the former sheriff had no comment on the case.

"He's not the subject of the investigation, as far as we know," Whitmore said.

The highest ranked sheriff's employee charged in the case is a lieutenant, several ranks below Tanaka's former position.

Attorneys in the Sexton case are scheduled to meet June 9 to determine if a new trial date will be set.
 

This story has been updated.

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