Videos of inmates screaming in pain while being hit multiple times with a Taser. A sheriff's deputy taking the stand to deny he used excessive force even while testifying he punched and kicked inmates as many as 35 times after they were already sprawled face down on their cells.
Those were just some of the highlights -- or lowlights -- of a trial underway at the downtown federal courthouse, as Los Angeles County and its Sheriff's Department stand accused of subjecting inmates to "dehumanizing abuse" while "under the color of law" during a cell extraction on Aug. 25, 2008.
Five inmates -- Heriberto Rodriguez, Carlos Flores, Erick Nunez, Juan Carlos Sanchez and Juan Trinidad -- are suing for unspecified damages, saying they suffered skull fractures, broken limbs and other serious injuries after being "unmercifully beaten" by deputies at Men's Central Jail.
In their complaint, they said about 15 to 30 inmates barricaded themselves inside their cells to protest the beating of a fellow inmate.
Deputies allegedly responded by subjecting them to "brutal and gratuitous force that was unnecessary for any legitimate penal interest and amounted to punishment."
The violence took place three weeks after gang members killed a jail deputy, Juan Escalante, outside his home in Cypress Park.
In their complaint, inmates accused deputies of threatening to "beat or kill Hispanic gang members" at MCJ in the aftermath of the killing, believing one of them had ordered the hit on their colleague.
Defense attorneys contended during the trial that the deputies were merely protecting themselves after a "riot" broke out in the section of MCJ reserved for the "most dangerous inmates."
"The deputies did not do anything wrong," Sgt. Kelley Washington insisted on the stand.
She pointed out inmates had been setting fires, throwing debris and making the hallways dangerously slippery by flooding them with shampoo-laced water from deliberately clogged toilets.
But Deputy Nicholas Graham admitted during cross-examination that he punched and kicked inmates 17 to 35 times after they had been hit repeatedly with Tasers, and forced down to the floor.
Graham said both in his post-incident report and during cross-examination that the inmates were not fighting back.
But when plaintiff's attorney James Muller asked if he used excessive force, Graham responded, "That's incorrect."
He also said, "Force is a prerogative."
The department is required to record all cell extractions, but it failed to submit all the videos of this particular incident, saying some were lost.
The remaining videos do not clearly show the encounters between deputies and inmates inside the cells, however, the sounds of the Tasers were audible, as were voices howling in pain. There were also thuds, followed by moaning and grunting.
In one of the videos, an inmate was hit with a Taser repeatedly even after he was heard screaming, "I give up!"
At one point, deputies laughed because Graham cursed after accidentally hitting himself with a Taser.
Another video showed Lt. Dan Cruz, a supervisor at the jail, appearing to give deputies high-fives after they walked out of the cells, carrying inmates who had been rendered unconscious.
Both Washington and Graham justified the use of force by explaining they had been warned that at least some of the inmates were armed with chunks of broken porcelain, and one lunged at deputies entering his cell with a "stabbing motion."
Washington said the inmates were "not at all passive," adding, "It was a fight, a brawl, a wrestling match."
But Steve Martin, a corrections expert, contradicted her testimony after observing the videos.
He said inmates were only capable of "defensive or survival resistance" because "in their state of restraint, by the laws of physics, they weren't able to do anything."
According to the complaint, deputies fired projectiles at plaintiff Rodriguez, used his own shirt to choke him into unconsciousness and then shocked him back into consciousness by applying a Taser to his testicles and other parts of his body, until its entire charge was extinguished.
Rodriguez suffered a tablespoon-sized fracture in his skull.
Flores suffered seizures, as well as a fractured sinus bone and eye socket, which required the placement of a metal plate. Nunez suffered a fractured ankle; Sanchez, a fractured leg; and Trinidad two fractured ankles and a fractured hand.
The complaint alleged, "At some point during the beatings of plaintiffs, a (John) Doe defendant supervisor was heard telling deputies that none of the inmates should be able to walk when they left their cells.
The trial, which began last week, could last through the end of the month.
On orders from Judge Consuelo Martin, plaintiff's attorneys declined to answer questions about why the inmates had been incarcerated.
The trial is taking place even as Sheriff Lee Baca is carrying out dozens of reforms recommended by the county's blue ribbon Commission on Jail Violence. On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors approved about $30 million in funding for additional deputy training and other changes. ___