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ACLU accuses Baca, Cooley of hiding brutality against inmates

City News Service | 7/11/2012, 5 p.m.

Sheriff Lee Baca and District Attorney Steve Cooley condoned a longstanding secret program to hide evidence of brutality by deputies against inmates in Los Angeles County jails by bringing assault charges against the victims, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU) alleges in a civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The complaint, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of local defense attorney Jeffrey Douglas, contends that abused inmates are regularly charged for assault on any deputy involved in a use-of-force investigation.

The charges serve to cover up deputy misconduct because the threat of serious jail time frequently results in plea bargains, which insulate the county and individual deputies from potential civil liability and protects the deputies from disciplinary or criminal proceedings for their abuse, according to the ACLU.

Reports by advocacy groups, jail monitors and media outlets have documented alleged instances of deputy-on-inmate violence in the Los Angeles County jail system.

"For any justice system to merit that name, the first principle must be that those who are charged with enforcing the law themselves obey it," said plaintiff's attorney Benjamin Gluck. "By this lawsuit, we seek nothing more, but will accept nothing less."

Baca spokesman Steve Whitmore said the sheriff had not yet reviewed the complaint, but that it appears to "inappropriately" place blame on the wrong people.

"We've done nothing wrong," Whitmore said. "From what we hear, it appears to be a gross mischaracterization and inappropriately lays blame. We look forward to answering these allegations."

The lawsuit identifies what the ACLU alleges are examples of where the district attorney's office and sheriff's department suppressed evidence, which was later uncovered by Douglas, resulting in either dismissal of charges or acquittal at trial.

The ACLU said it had also filed a complaint with the State Bar against Cooley, demanding the appointment of an independent counsel with sufficient staff to review all cases that have resulted in guilty verdicts or pleas since the program was allegedly adopted. The plaintiffs are also seeking a civil grand jury investigation.

Cooley, who did not seek reelection and is finishing out his final term, called the lawsuit "a blatant attempt to mislead the public and the court."

He said he is confident" that his office's policy on the sharing of evidence with the defense "complies with the highest constitutional and statutory standards."

The ACLU contends that Cooley and Baca have jointly "corrupted" criminal trials for more than a decade, turning them into "truth-concealing perversions of justice: a system of injustice for all criminal defendants," said Mark Rosenbaum, chief counsel of the ACLU.

"This latest in a seeming unending series of law enforcement scandals on the part of county officials means that there can be no assurance that any of the many thousands of prosecutions during this period resulted in a fair trial," he said.

Douglas said that as a practicing defense attorney for 30 years, he is "shocked" by what he alleges is the illegal secreting of evidence by county officials.

"The choice of our elected officials to disregard flagrantly the statutory and constitutionally required disclosure of accusations of misconduct by sheriff deputies is shocking," he said.