Justice Takes a Beating

OC court greenlights torture in local jails

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On a quiet, tree-lined Santa Ana street about 10 blocks from the jail sits an anonymous, two-story building with a manicured lawn and lush landscaping. It looks more like a millionaire's Cape Cod mansion than home to the region's state Court of Appeal. Inside works David G. Sills, the presiding justice and onetime Irvine GOP politician, as well as seven associate justices appointed by governors. Overseeing the rulings of Orange County's stable of Superior Court judges, the panel's task is to ensure justice—even for the downtrodden.

But the Court of Appeal comprises well-connected individuals. And for those with further political ambitions, it's unwise to take sides against law enforcement or to dig too deeply into local institutions like the jail. So it's not surprising that Sills' panel routinely ignores the screams of beaten suspects and inmates.

What's alarming, however, is how far that panel will go to make life more miserable for inmates, many of whom are still—nominally, at least—innocent. Just before Hall's alleged July 17 beating, the appeals panel gave tacit support for jailhouse torture. On June 29, Justices William Rylaarsdam, Richard D. Fybel and Eileen C. Moore overturned a jury's decision to award $177,000 in damages to Robert N. Carter, an inmate who suffered numerous injuries while in custody for possession of drug paraphernalia. Forty years old and overweight, Carter claimed that deputies refused to give him medicine for a critical heart condition, kicked him in the groin repeatedly, pepper sprayed his face, beat his ribs, broke his jaw and hog-tied him. He said he was forced to use his cell's toilet water to rinse the pepper spray from his eyes.

Deputies disputed the claims, testifying that Carter failed to comply with their commands, sought fights with officers and, on several occasions, asked to be pepper sprayed. Officers said they only reluctantly granted Carter's wish. A jury declined to punish individual deputies but determined that Sheriff Carona and the county had violated Carter's rights, permitted the use of excessive force and failed to adequately train or supervise jail deputies.

The appeals court slammed the jury's decision. "At most, all these incidents show are that various employees committed misconduct," according to Rylaarsdam, who then noted that the county and Carona should not be held legally liable. The justice said he accepted the deputies' versions as truthful, questioned Carter's injuries and stated that there is "no evidence of widespread abuses." Reasoned Rylaarsdam: If there were no abuses in the jail, why would the sheriff be expected to order reforms?

But the most troubling ruling from the court came on June 8, when Justices Moore and Fybel joined William Bedsworth. The case was simple: Santa Ana police took Hong Cuc Truong, who'd been arrested for shoplifting in 2002, to the Orange County Jail. There, Truong—a Vietnamese immigrant diagnosed with schizophrenia—initially refused a deputy's command to undress and take a shower before she was to be issued a jail jump suit. Truong began undressing about 10 minutes later, after another inmate convinced her it was safe to disrobe. As she pulled her sweater over her head, however, four deputies pounced, beating and kicking her and painfully twisting her arms behind her back. In the process, Truong suffered a severe arm fracture, according to records reviewed by the Weekly. Tossed in a cell, she said she was denied medical attention for hours.

The appeals court ruled there had been no excessive force. Never mind that the woman was in the process of complying when the attack occurred, wrote Justice Moore: "Truong's refusal to obey the lawful order and the events that led to her injuries are part of an unbreakable chain of events." It was "temporal hair-splitting" to consider that the woman had "changed her mind and started to remove her sweater."

But lost in Moore's justification was a missing explanation: Why did it take four trained deputies—using considerable violence—to handle Truong, who, at the time of the incident, was 54 years old, an inch over 5 feet tall and barely 100 pounds?

Photo by Amy Theilig

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