Closing arguments to begin Friday in LASD corruption trial

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Friday, June 20, 2014
Closing arguments are set for Friday, June 20, 2014 in the trial of six current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Closing arguments are set for Friday, June 20, 2014 in the trial of six current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Closing arguments are set to begin Friday in the trial of six current and former members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department accused of obstructing a federal investigation into brutality and corruption inside L.A. County jails.

The case has exposed a deep rift between the LASD and the FBI, one that may not be repaired for years to come. Shortly after dawn on a Monday morning in December 2013, FBI agents fanned out across Southern California to arrest more than a dozen sworn LASD officers. For a department mired in scandal, it appeared to be a tipping point. Sheriff Lee Baca retired -- suddenly -- one month later.

Lt. Greg Thompson, Lt. Steve Leavins, Sgt. Scott Craig, Sgt. Maricela Long, Dep. Mickey Manzo and Dep. Gerard Smith were indicted on charges of conspiracy and obstruction of justice for the alleged hiding of an informant, falsification of records and witness tampering.

Sgts. Long and Craig each face an additional count of making false statements to the FBI in connection with their threat to arrest FBI Special Agent Leah Marx.

If convicted, the defendants face a maximum penalty of between 15 and 20 years in federal prison, although it's expected they would be sentenced to far less time than the maximum. All six defendants have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

A seventh defendant, Deputy James Sexton, was tried separately in a case that ended last month with a hung jury.

Testimony in this trial stretched out over more than three weeks. Witnesses included the former head of the FBI's Los Angeles Field Office, Steve Martinez, and former LASD Undersheriff Paul Tanaka, who has been named by prosecutors as a "subject" of their ongoing federal investigation.

Two of the six defendants testified in their own defense, including Sgt. Scott Craig who finished his cross-examination on Thursday morning.

Prosecutor Liz Rhodes interspersed her questions to Craig with audio clips from various interviews Craig conducted with inmate-turned-FBI-informant Anthony Brown, and Gilbert Michel, the deputy caught taking a bribe in an undercover FBI sting.

Was Craig trying to discourage Michel from cooperating with the FBI by telling Michel the FBI was trying to "control" him? Why did he order Michel to not talk to the FBI? Why did he continue to investigate the FBI after he came to believe they were conducting a legitimate, authorized investigation into the jails?

Referring to the FBI, Craig told Michel in a recorded interview: "I call (expletive), I call (expletive). It's all (expletive), because they're trying to scare you."

In an interview with another deputy, Craig can be heard telling him: "If someone starts threatening you with a subpoena or some nonsense -- call me -- I don't care if it's three in the morning."

Craig has stated it was never his intent to obstruct the FBI's investigation. It was a "revelation" to him that there might be "ongoing" brutality by deputies in the jail. Craig testified that he wanted to find out more: Who were these deputies? Were they still on the job, still possibly abusing inmates? Why wouldn't the FBI share whatever information they'd gathered about the possibly corrupt deputies?

Rhodes pointed out that Craig and the task force he led were aware at that point of allegations made against four deputies and a sergeant in connection with the February 2011 beating of Gabriel Carrillo, a man who was visiting his brother at Men's Central Jail. And yet, Rhodes said, those deputies were not removed from their jobs with the LASD until they were arrested by the FBI in December 2013, the same day Craig and his co-defendants were arrested.

Prosecutor Rhodes drilled down on a statement Craig made during his testimony on Wednesday -- that he believed he had "probable cause" to arrest FBI Agent Leah Marx for her role in an undercover FBI operation to smuggle a cellphone into the jail to be used by informant Anthony Brown.

But Marx's actions were authorized by the FBI, meaning she could not be arrested for actions taken in the course and scope of her duties with the FBI.

Rhodes asked, "Regardless of the supremacy clause, you knew you could not arrest a law enforcement officer for acting within the course and scope of her duties?"

Craig replied, "I would agree with that."

Sgt. Craig was the final witness for the defense, but prosecutors called two witnesses as part of their rebuttal case: Michael Gennaco and Linda Lapham.

Gennaco is the chief attorney for L.A. County's Office of Independent Review, which monitors the LASD to ensure that allegations of officer misconduct are thoroughly investigated.

Gennaco was called by prosecutors to refute testimony made last week by defendant Steve Leavins, who told jurors he'd consulted with two county attorneys, including Gennaco, about the LASD investigation to be sure they were "on firm legal ground."

Lt. Leavins also told jurors that he attended a meeting with Gennaco in late August or early September 2011 at Sheriff Baca's office. Leavins says Gennaco did not express any concerns about their investigation and said that "the FBI is going to be in trouble for smuggling that phone in."

Gennaco told jurors on Thursday he has no recollection of that meeting or making that statement.

Linda Lapham was also called by prosecutors to refute testimony by Lt. Leavins about two meetings held at the U.S. Attorney's Office as tensions escalated between the LASD and the FBI. Lapham is the Executive Assistant to U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte and helped to coordinate those meetings, which were held on August 29, 2011 and September 27, 2011.

Leavins told jurors on Friday that he attended the late August meeting with Sheriff Baca, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Undersheriff Paul Tanaka and various representatives of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Leavins testified that Birotte told Baca that the FBI was conducting a civil rights investigation into the jails and that Baca should, as Leavins put it, "butt out."

Leavins changed his testimony on Tuesday of this week, saying he was mistaken, that the meeting he attended was the one in late September.

Lapham says that's not possible. She testified Thursday that she coordinated both meetings and clearly recalls that the only people in attendance at the late September meeting were Andre Birotte, Sheriff Baca and the head of the FBI Los Angeles Field Office Steve Martinez.

Closing statements get underway Friday morning and are expected to continue all day Friday and Monday. Jurors should get the case by late Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning.