Jail chaplain testifies against LASD deputies accused of beating inmate, falsifying report

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Chaplain Paulino Juarez is still shaken by the beating he witnessed inside the Men's Central Jail nearly seven years ago. (KABC)

Chaplain Paulino Juarez is still shaken by the beating he witnessed inside the Men's Central Jail nearly seven years ago.

Juarez trembled and broke down at times on the witness stand Thursday as he recounted his final memory of the inmate, lying face down in a puddle of blood. The inmate appeared to be unconscious, perhaps even dead, the chaplain said.

"I see something inexplicable, something cruel, I never expected to see, terrible," Chaplain Juarez told jurors in the case of two Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies charged with beating the inmate and falsifying reports to cover it up.

MORE: 2 LASD deputies accused of beating former inmate, falsifying reports

Deputies Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez have both pleaded not guilty to the charges that, if proven, could send them to federal prison.

Juarez said he was "walking the rows" on what's known as the "3000 floor" of the jail in February 2009. He'd received special permission to be there earlier than was his usual practice.

Juarez was speaking to an inmate when he said he heard a noise, walked toward it and watched through jail bars as three deputies punched, kicked and kneed an inmate who was handcuffed and waist-chained.

"He said 'stop, please stop!'" Juarez said as he remembered the inmate crying out to the deputies. Juarez testified that the inmate, identified later as Bret Phillips, was not resisting in any way.

"They were saying, 'Stop resisting, stop fighting,'" Juarez said. "But he was not fighting."

More deputies rushed in and joined the fray. Juarez told jurors in a shaky voice that a deputy with his knee on the inmate's back and his fist drawn back, ready to punch, suddenly spotted the chaplain watching through the jail bars.

"When he saw me, he froze," Juarez said.

Other deputies were still kicking the inmate, Juarez testified, until all five deputies realized he was watching.

For prosecutors, Juarez's testimony is critical. The Catholic deacon has worked inside Men's Central Jail since 1998 and works on the same floor to this day.

"The chaplain is really someone who has no dog in the race," said Miriam Aroni-Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor and advocate for jail reform.

"It's going to be very hard to argue that he was a partisan for one side or the other," Aroni-Krinsky said.

But defense attorneys for the two charged deputies questioned the chaplain's view of the beating through the jail bars. Was the lighting sufficient? Could Juarez see the inmate's face?

Defense attorneys admit there was a justified "use of force" against Phillips, but suggested Juarez is either exaggerating what he saw, or perhaps witnessed an entirely different incident.

Juarez testified that he did not recall seeing a flashlight being used against the inmate or pepper spray being deployed, two things the deputies said occurred in the use of force.

"I saw what I saw," Juarez said.

"It's hard to view this case in shades of gray," Aroni-Krinsky said. "You either believe the chaplain's account, in which case these deputies broke the law. Or, you dismiss it and conclude that the chaplain for some reason wasn't truthful."

Testimony resumes Friday morning. Phillips is expected to take the witness stand.
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