Former deputy James Sexton sentenced to 18 months in prison

ByLisa Bartley KABC logo
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
James Sexton is seen in this photo from May 2014.
James Sexton is seen in this photo from May 2014.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The former L.A. County sheriff's deputy who came up with the name "Operation Pandora's Box" for the scheme to block a federal investigation into civil rights abuses at Men's Central Jail was sentenced Monday to 18 months in prison.

James Sexton, a former Eagle Scout who earned his master's degree at USC last year, was found guilty of conspiracy and obstruction of justice in September. It was the 30-year old Alabama native's second trial. Jurors in his first trial were "hopelessly deadlocked" - and unable to reach a verdict. Prosecutors decided to retry Sexton after winning convictions against six of his co-defendants in a separate trial.

Outside court Monday, Sexton and his attorney Tom O'Brien declined to comment.

Prosecutors referred to Sexton as the "least culpable" of those indicted for their roles in the operation to hide inmate-turned-federal informant Anthony Brown from his FBI handlers. Co-conspirators Greg Thompson, Steve Leavins, Gerard Smith, Mickey Manzo, Scott Craig and Maricela Long, were sentenced in September to terms ranging from 21 months to 41 months in prison.

Prosecutor Brandon Fox was asked by Eyewitness News what message he hopes the case sends to other law enforcement personnel.

"That you should cooperate with our federal grand jury investigations. If you don't cooperate with them and you obstruct those investigations, you will be held accountable and you will go to prison," says Fox.

Sexton's case was made more complicated and fascinating to courtroom watchers by the fact that he cooperated initially with the FBI and federal prosecutors. He testified before the grand jury twice, provided documents and had 37 "documented contacts" with federal investigators as they put their case together. The FBI provided Sexton with a cell phone so he could communicate with them confidentially. Text messages between Sexton and an FBI agent indicate there was some concern for Sexton's safety as the case unfolded. In an unusual move, Sexton was allowed to keep two of his firearms after his indictment.

Defense attorney Tom O'Brien told Judge Percy Anderson in court Monday that Sexton made a "critical mistake" by going along with the scheme, a decision that was out of character for the deputy who'd been on the job for less than three years. O'Brien says Sexton put himself in danger by helping prosecutors with their case.

"He stepped up and put himself in the crosshairs of being indicted and he was," says O'Brien.

Prosecutors countered that Sexton's cooperation "meant nothing at the end of the day" because he did not testify in court against his co-defendants. Court documents suggest that Sexton's "cooperation" fell apart after he was asked twice to wear a wire that might capture conversations between higher-ups in the Sheriff's Department. Sexton's father, a longtime friend of then-Sheriff Lee Baca, was about to start a new job working as Baca's Chief of Homeland Security. Sexton refused to wear the wire.

"He did come in and talk to us on a number of occasions, but again, he was not a witness for us. He was not helpful to us," says Fox who referred to Sexton in court as "very complicated and complex."

Testimony throughout the three trials indicates that Sheriff Lee Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka were regularly briefed about the operation and did not raise any questions about how it was being handled. Defense attorneys argued that all seven of the defendants were merely following orders from their higher-ups, including Baca and Tanaka.

"I'm not going to comment on who we are going after and who we haven't gone after. As we mentioned in court many times, this is an ongoing investigation," says Fox. "We still have a lot going on. We have not finished our Men's Central Jail investigation."

Sexton was one of about a dozen LASD deputies who guarded Anthony Brown over several weeks in the summer and fall of 2011 after Brown was linked to the FBI. Brown, a career criminal awaiting trial for armed robbery, was providing information to the FBI on alleged civil rights abuses inside Men's Central Jail.

Brown's name was changed, his records jacket was hidden and computer records were altered to make it appear that Brown had been released from LASD custody. Defense attorneys argued that Brown was moved for his own safety because he'd been outed as a "snitch."

Prosecutors used Sexton's own testimony to the grand jury against him. Sexton likened the department's handling of Brown to a "kidnapping," and colorfully described the how they decided to "break out the smoke and mirrors" to keep Brown hidden away.

Judge Percy Anderson told Sexton in court Monday that despite his privileged upbringing and a supportive family, he'd lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Anderson denounced Sexton for being "totally unrepentant" and "refusing to accept responsibility."

"For anybody to take the position that there was no harm to society is just flat-out wrong," says Anderson.

Before today's sentencing, attorneys for Sexton filed paperwork asking for a lighter sentence, including letters of support from dozens of friends, family members and former co-workers. Among those writing in support of Sexton were an L.A. County Deputy District Attorney, a retired CIA official, a Captain in the U.S. Special Forces, a Green Beret and the President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Attorneys also submitted dozens of awards and commendations Sexton received while on the job, including one from LAPD Charlie Beck for Sexton's role in reducing gang violence through his work in the jails.

Sexton is expected to surrender to federal prison on or before February 16, 2015.