Former LASD Deputy James Sexton freed from prison

ByLisa Bartley via KABC logo
Friday, January 13, 2017
James Sexton poses with his wife, Keely Sexton, after his release from federal custody on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2017, in downtown Los Angeles.
James Sexton poses with his wife, Keely Sexton, after his release from federal custody on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2017, in downtown Los Angeles.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Deputy James Sexton was freed from prison Thursday after more than four months in federal custody.

Sexton's 18-month prison term was reduced to "time served" by Judge Percy Anderson. Prosecutors requested the reduction after Sexton cooperated in the federal prosecution of former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.

"I accept responsibility and apologize," Sexton told Judge Anderson. "I won't put myself in this position again."

Sexton is a pivotal figure in the corruption scandal that rocked the LASD and led to a series of criminal convictions -- all the way up to former LASD Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. In all, nine former LASD officials have either been convicted or pleaded guilty in the scheme to derail an FBI investigation into the jails.

Baca himself stood trial in December on the same charges. Jurors deadlocked 11-1 for acquittal, but prosecutors announced this week they will retry the former sheriff next month.

Sexton released this statement to Eyewitness News on Thursday evening:

"After many years of working through the legal process, I was extremely nervous to finally address the judge directly about the totality of my experiences pertaining to the operations surrounding Anthony Brown. While I take full responsibility for my role, I did my best to outline my love for my family, my community and respect for the law. I am grateful the court and government recognized my choices were limited at the time. I am encouraged to hear they are continuing to pursue the elitist LASD executives who violated the public trust at the highest levels. I'm disheartened that deputy sheriffs are routinely used as scapegoats while a few executives indemnify themselves via bureaucracy and legal safeguards from the comfort of administrative buildings as was the case with Operation Pandora's Box."

It was Sexton who dubbed the LASD caper "Operation Pandora's Box" - a reference to a story in Greek mythology - a box that, when opened, released all of the "evils and suffering" into the world.

"Operation Pandora's Box did not happen in a vacuum, sir," Sexton said during his formal statement to the judge in court Thursday.

Sexton was 25 years old and only three years on the job in 2011 when he says orders "came from the top" to hide jail inmate Anthony Brown from the FBI. Brown, a convicted armed robber, had been outed as a secret FBI informant. The FBI was using inmate Brown as part of their investigation into reports of corruption and deputy-on-inmate brutality inside the jails.

Sexton told the judge how he fell into the "cultural pitfalls of the sheriff's department," which included "misplaced loyalties... and a culture of plausible deniability while working in the gray."

Sexton, a former Eagle Scout who earned his master's degree at USC while awaiting trial in 2014, told Judge Anderson he wished he could go back to the day he walked into his first academy class.

"I stand before you as a broken man," Sexton said, choking up at times. Sexton's wife sobbed in the front row. Several LASD deputies also turned out to show their support.

It was a "painful and public fall from grace," Sexton said of his trials and conviction. Sexton, now 32, told the judge he'd promised his wife he would not become "jaded or cynical" in prison, that he'd find a way to "make this my finest hour, instead of my worst nightmare."

At the end of Thursday's court hearing, prosecutor Brandon Fox shook hands with the still-handcuffed and shackled Sexton. It's close to the end of a long, strange road between the lead prosecutor and the former deputy.

Sexton cooperated with the FBI and federal prosecutors long before he was indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. He testified before a grand jury twice, supplied documents and had 37 "documented contacts" with federal investigators as they put their case together. But Sexton's cooperation ended when he refused to wear a wire that might capture conversations between Baca and his father, a long-time friend of the former sheriff. Sexton's father was never a target of the investigation, but was in the process of accepting a job with the LASD and had frequent access to the Sheriff. Sexton twice refused to wear a wire and was indicted in December of 2013.

Sexton become especially emotional when he discussed his father Ted Sexton, a former and longtime Sheriff of Tuscaloosa County in Alabama.

"I failed him and his example in 2011 and there's nothing I can do to redeem that," said Sexton.

The former deputy went on to describe how his father built himself from nothing -- a former foster child who devoted his life to public service. Sexton says his father diversified the department by "recruiting and promoting people of color when it was still unpopular."

"He is why I chose the profession. He was then and is now my hero."

Prosecutor Fox told Judge Anderson Thursday that he believes Sexton is a "changed person." Whereas before, he came off before as "cocky, immature, with a chip on his shoulder." Fox says Sexton has been "humbled" by the ordeal and accepts responsibility.

Prosecutors believe Sexton "testified truthfully" at Baca's trial and expect him to do the same at the upcoming retrial.

Sexton's defense attorney, Tom O'Brien, told Judge Anderson that Sexton's four months in custody have been "hard time" as opposed to the term he was supposed to serve at a minimum-security federal prison camp.

After Sexton agreed to cooperate against Baca, he was transported from the camp in Alabama to a series of maximum security facilities. He's spent the last month or so in solitary confinement for his own safety. O'Brien says fellow inmates know Sexton is a former law enforcement officer. They've threatened him and spit in his food.

"I'm a known cooperator, a published whistleblower and a disgraced cop," Sexton said of the dangers he's faced while in custody.

Judge Anderson ultimately agreed to the reduction in sentence. Sexton will spend no more time behind bars. He will, however, spend six months in home confinement with electronic monitoring.

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