Justice Takes a Beating
Last month, on the other side of the planet from Abu Ghraib prison and 3,200 miles from Guantanamo Bay, right here in Orange County, five jail deputies handcuffed, hooded, beat and tortured a 38-year-old San Clemente businessman, according to a claim filed this week.
Still in pain three weeks after the July 17 incident, Greg W. Hall told OC Weekly about a Sunday evening that began auspiciously: enjoying a beer early in the afternoon and later several coffees, contemplating surfing and walking his dog at the beach. As Hall backed his SUV out of a parking space, his dog jumped in front of a side-view mirror and distracted him. He sideswiped another vehicle, causing minor damage.
When police arrived, they gave Hall a field-sobriety check and two Breathalyzer tests. Crime lab records show his blood alcohol level was 0.00. Nevertheless, deputies believed Hall acted oddly. Currently on probation for an illegal prescription case in 2003, Hall told the officer at the scene about the beer and admitted that he used Paxil, an antidepressant medication. The deputy arrested him on suspicion of DUI and transported him to the Orange County Jail for a drug test. After a nurse took his blood, the arresting officer told Hall, "You'll probably be out of here in about an hour," and left.
But a 16-hour "hellish nightmare" awaited Hall, who attended Newport Harbor High School, graduated in 1991 from UC San Diego with a degree in economics, and says he has operated several small companies. When he complained about the tightness of his handcuffs, five deputies swarmed him, yelled obscenities and attacked without legitimate provocation, Hall claims. Handcuffed and overwhelmed, his body was treated like a piñata.
According to documents filed Aug. 11 with county officials, the deputies dragged Hall down a corridor, shoved his face into a cell door frame, threw him to the floor, punched him, kicked his ribs, stomped on his back and legs, bent and twisted his arms and wrists, and repeatedly slammed his face into the concrete. Hall says one deputy tried to break his right foot with his bare hands. He remembers an unrelenting, "two- or three-minute attack" that ended only when a superior officer ordered the deputies to stop.
"I thought they were going to kill me," said Hall, bandaged and wearing a wrist cast. "They had no right to torture me. I was in handcuffs. I was cooperating."
At press time, the results of Hall's drug test were not available. But medical records show that during his visit to the jail he suffered a concussion, broken ribs, a gash in his leg, an eye contusion, broken veins in his feet, a shattered front tooth, lacerations and bruises over his body, contusions to a knee, neck pain, a fractured right wrist and nerve damage to his left hand. The handcuffs were locked so tightly that the steel sliced his hands and caused dangerous swelling. An imprint of a deputy's boot could be seen on the back of his leg for days.
The beating was so severe that Hall defecated in his pants. Deputies laughed and called him a "shit monkey." When they returned to his cell later, they cursed at him again—and tied a black mesh hood over his head.
Christopher B. Mears—Hall's attorney, a former Irvine city councilman and the current chairman of the California Athletic Commission—said deputies left his client in that condition—hooded, handcuffed behind his back, soiled in feces and bleeding—for the next 12 hours. Officers also allegedly denied Hall food and water or access to a phone to call his family. Just before his release, Hall—still handcuffed—watched a jail staffer stitch the gash in his leg without anesthesia. Dizzy, sore and nauseated, he limped out of the building wondering why.
"They literally—and I mean literally—beat the shit out of him," said Mears. "Those deputies can't get away with this type of savage behavior against a defenseless person who is in their custody."
* * *
Jailhouse deputies have a difficult job. They are often the youngest, least experienced officers in the sheriff's department, and their pay is as low as the potential daily risks are high. Although many of the citizens who pass through the jail system are not dangerous, these deputies regularly face society's delinquents and psychopaths. Most perform their duties professionally.
But law enforcement sources, defense lawyers and former inmates tell the Weeklythat a minority of officers in the Orange County Jail are, as a sheriff's department official familiar with excessive force cases described them, "pure and simple thugs who don't have the mental or emotional makeup to wear a badge."
"Outsiders might think the department wouldn't tolerate these bad apples," said the official. "But they're definitely there. They're an embarrassment to the department. They've even had names, including 'The Psycho Crew.'"
In 2003, my colleague Nick Schou reported the findings of Laguna Beach lawyer Richard P. Herman, a leading critic of jailhouse abuses. Herman claimed "inmates of the Orange County Jail awaken at night to the screams of other inmates being beaten." Orange County Registerinvestigative reporter Aldrin Brown had previously written a series of articles describing the horrific results of the beatings in local jails: detached retinas, ruptured eardrums, shattered jaws, severed arteries, broken limbs—even death from trauma.
Brown, now with a Tennessee newspaper, found evidence in 2000 that jail deputies entertained themselves by encouraging fights between inmates. In 2001, Brown and Registerreporter John McDonald disclosed that four deputies had taken a 20-year-old inmate to an isolated area of the jail in December 1999 and crushed his testicles. Prosecutors agreed that the man had been tortured but said a code of silence among jail personnel prevented the filing of charges. Deputies claimed their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination when they were brought before the grand jury.
Nobody had a better opportunity to demand reform than federal judge Gary L. Taylor. Prompted by Herman's class-action lawsuit, Taylor conceded in April that "there is room for improvement" inside the jail but suggested the grievances aren't serious. He killed the suit. "Improvement is always a necessary goal," the judge said in a 14-page ruling. "The county and the sheriff show every indication they will perform that high duty."
But Sheriff Mike Carona—who called Taylor's ruling a "great victory"—has little incentive to clean up the county's jail. He first won election in 1998 by telling voters that his leadership would produce a department that was a model of professionalism. Today, he thinks he's succeeded. Through one of his spokesmen, the sheriff said he runs "one of the safest jails in America" and that "inmate welfare" is "very high on our list."
In fact, politics tops the sheriff's list. When they're candid, Carona's advisers admit the sheriff won't end jail abuses for fear of alienating the deputies' politically powerful union. With an election year approaching and challengers such as Bill Hunt and Ralph Martin already campaigning, it's unlikely Carona—who is seeking his third term at the $500-million-a-year agency—will enact reforms any time soon.
That reality gives rogue deputies leeway to misbehave with little or no fear of punishment. Sources inside the jail say these officers often arrive at work looking for excuses to employ violence.
A few don't wait. A law enforcement source described how some of these deputies provoke violence. In one example, he said, deputies would target an inmate at random, give him jail clothing that was either too small or too large and then wait for him to complain. "When the guy complains, the deputy's hit the jackpot," said the official. "He wallops the living hell out of him and reports that force was necessary to end a disruption. Officially, nobody will doubt the word of a deputy."
* * *
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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