Closing arguments in Deputy James Sexton's corruption trial

ByMiriam Hernandez and Lisa Bartley KABC logo
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Closing arguments in Deputy Sexton corruption trial
Jurors in the trial of a deputy accused of obstruction of justice heard closing arguments Tuesday that included tales of a furious sheriff and a stealth operation known as "Pandora's Box."

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Jurors in the trial of a deputy accused of obstruction of justice heard closing arguments Tuesday that included tales of a furious Sheriff Leroy Baca, a court order that "disappeared", a stealth operation that became known as "Pandora's Box" and a power struggle between two of the largest law enforcement agencies in the nation.

Deputy James Sexton is the first of seven Sheriff's Department officials to be tried on charges he conspired to hide an inmate-turned-FBI informant who was providing information to federal agents on abuse and corruption within the jails during the summer of 2011.

Testimony from both sides throughout the trial has pointed to broader questions. Who gave the orders to hide the inmate? Why haven't those higher-ranking sheriff's department officials been indicted? Was the LASD conducting its own legitimate investigation or obstructing justice by impeding the FBI's probe?

Witnesses have testified that orders to repeatedly move the inmate and change his name came former Sheriff Leroy Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka. Baca was not called to testify at this trial. But Paul Tanaka, who is running for Sheriff, did take the stand. Tanaka testified that he believed the orders to be "lawful" and that he expected his subordinates to follow those orders.

During closing arguments on Tuesday, Prosecutor Maggie Carter told jurors that defendant James Sexton went into the alleged conspiracy with "his eyes wide open."

Carter argued that Sexton's computer skills were necessary to make the inmate vanish from the jail's computerized booking system and that Sexton knew the federal marshals were looking for the inmate.

Carter recounted Sexton's own testimony to a federal grand jury that once the LASD realized the feds were closing in, they decided to "break out the smoke and mirrors, let's hide him." Anthony Brown's name was changed from John Rodriguez, to Kevin King, to Chris Johnson; he was moved to various locations; and most crucially he was not "live scanned", meaning the FBI could not find Brown via his fingerprints.

The scheme to hide inmate Anthony Brown became known internally as "Operation Pandora's Box." Prosecutor Brandon Fox told jurors in closing arguments Tuesday that the LASD wanted to "keep the lid on Pandora's Box, so no one could learn about the evils within Men's Central Jail."

Fox also told jurors, "You may believe others may be guilty of the crime, but that's for another jury on another day." Six other co-defendants in this case go on trial beginning Wednesday.

Defense attorney Tom O'Brien painted a picture for jurors of a Sheriff's Department that was running off the rails; a furious Sheriff Baca, a jurisdictional turf war, a junior deputy who was "collateral damage" in a fight between the FBI and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

"This is a case of whose got the biggest badge," O'Brien told jurors during closing arguments. O'Brien called the case a unique "peek behind the curtain to see multiple law enforcement agencies fight like children." O'Brien described the spat between agencies as "juvenile" and suggested "someone should give Lee Baca a time-out."

O'Brien reminded jurors that Sexton cooperated with the FBI before he was indicted late last year. Sexton was in contact with the FBI a total of thirty-seven times, he testified before the grand jury twice and he was even given a cell phone by the FBI so he could better communicate with agents handling the case.

Sexton, O'Brien said, was only following orders in a "quasi-military organization," orders that were coming down from the top two leaders in the LASD: Sheriff Leroy Baca and Undersheriff Paul Tanaka.

"People who gave the orders have not been indicted," O'Brien told the jury. "Why don't they go after Lee Baca, Paul Tanaka or Tom Carey? Why not?"

Closing arguments came one day after former Undersheriff and current candidate for sheriff Paul Tanaka admitted on the witness stand that he is the "subject" of an ongoing federal investigation into obstruction of justice. Tanaka acknowledged the disclosure could affect his chances in the upcoming primary election for sheriff of Los Angeles County.

Three other candidates for sheriff issued statements on Tuesday calling on Paul Tanaka to suspend his campaign and drop out of the race for sheriff.

Retired LASD Commander Bob Olmsted said the trial and its testimony "helped shine a bright spotlight on just how deeply rooted the LASD's corruption has been under failed Undersheriff Paul Tanaka's reign of terror."

Current Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell stated, "It is clear that our entire community would be better off today and in the future if Paul Tanaka ended his campaign."

Current LASD Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers told Eyewitness News, "For fifteen years, Paul Tanaka has been a cancer within the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. From smuggling bulletproof vests to Cambodia to blatant cronyism in promoting unqualified individuals to rank, Mr. Tanaka epitomizes the failed leadership of the old LASD."

The primary election for sheriff is June 3rd. Tanaka's campaign spokesperson Reed Galen tells Eyewitness News that Paul Tanaka is not dropping out of the race for sheriff; that he has "served with distinction his entire career" and has a "positive vision of leadership for the LASD."

Jurors in the Sexton trial asked for a read-back of Deputy Sexton's testimony before the grand jury and deliberated for several hours before ending the day without a verdict.