PASADENA, Calif. (CN) — Seven Los Angeles County sheriff’s officers on Tuesday told the Ninth Circuit that their convictions for obstructing an FBI investigation into jail brutality should be reversed because they were just doing their jobs.
Attorneys for seven former lieutenants, sergeants and officers of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department urged the panel to reverse the jury’s verdict during a packed morning hearing at the Richard H. Chambers courthouse in Pasadena.
They argued that their clients believed they were following lawful orders, and said the deputies were denied the right to fair trial after a juror was improperly dismissed from the case.
Last week, former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka was convicted as the ringleader of a conspiracy to hide FBI informant Anthony Brown within the jail system after the discovery of an FBI phone in his cell.
Ten department officials have also been convicted for their part in the obstruction scheme. In February, former Sheriff Leroy Baca pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. He will be sentenced later this year.
As part of the conspiracy, two Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau officers Sgt. Scott Craig, and Sgt. Maricela Long threatened the arrest of an FBI agent investigating the two downtown jail complexes, Men’s Central Jail and the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
Two years ago, a jury convicted Craig, Long, retired Lt. Gregory Thompson, Internal Criminal Investigations Bureau Lt. Stephen Leavins and Operation Safe Jails Program officers Gerard Smith and Mickey Manzo of obstructing a federal grand jury investigation into civil rights abuses at the jails.
A seventh officer, James Sexton, was convicted of obstruction of justice in December 2014.
The jury also found Craig and Long guilty of making false statements after they told the FBI they were seeking a warrant for the FBI agent’s arrest.
In a now-infamous videotaped encounter, Craig and Long approached FBI Special Agent Leah Tanner (then Leah Marx) outside her apartment complex after she returned home from work on Sept. 26, 2011.
Craig told Tanner she was the “named suspect in a felony complaint” and said he was “in the process of swearing out a declaration for an arrest warrant.”
Discussion of that video led to the most eyebrow-raising moment of the morning hearing, when Craig’s attorney Karen Lee Landau said Craig should have been permitted to introduce evidence that as a police officer he was “allowed to lie” to Tanner.
“To a layperson, this kind of activity may look wrong,” Landau said of the video of Craig threatening Tanner. “But we tell law enforcement officers that they’re allowed to do this. They’re allowed to lie to suspects. They’re allowed to lie to witnesses. They’re allowed to do things that civilians aren’t allowed to do.”
Circuit Judge Michelle Friedland noted, however, that there are laws that bar lying to the FBI.
“Isn’t this a little different than the usual lie?” Friedland said.
For Craig to be found guilty of making a false statement, Landau argued, there had to be a “specific intent to disobey the law” and that all the defendants in the case “believed that they were acting within the scope of their authority.”
The attorney said Craig hoped to identify other corrupt officers in the department and said the Internal Criminal Investigation Bureau had “overlapping jurisdiction” over sheriff’s officers and other police departments.
“Consider the circumstances of the interview. It was videotaped. It was audiotaped,” Landau said. “It was not obvious to a reasonable person — to a reasonable law enforcement officer — that they were doing something wrong, and that is why the evidence was so critical.”
But federal prosecutor Ashley Aull said that the record belied the notion that Craig was investigating corruption within the sheriff’s department. Both officers knew they did not have jurisdiction to investigate Tanner, she said.
Craig had visited Superior Court Judge John Torribio to ask him to sign a search warrant for the FBI’s Los Angeles offices. The judge testified earlier this year that in September 2011, he explained to Craig that he could not grant the order because he had no jurisdiction over the FBI.
Aull told the panel, “Both of them said that they understood that to mean that they had no jurisdiction to investigate in this case.”
There was no evidence that Craig or Long had approached Tanner because they were trying to root out corrupt officers, Aull added, and Craig had denied that he was lying and Long never said she part of any “ruse.”
After Tanner was approached, Supervisory Special Agent Carlos Narro called Long later that same day to ask about the videotaped encounter.
Aull said that Long’s tone of voice on a recording of the conversation “spoke volumes,” and Long did not ask Narro what the FBI might be investigating.
“She mocks him and laughs at him,” Aull said.
Leavins’ attorney Todd Burns also argued that the defendants were denied a right to a fair trial when U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson dismissed Juror Five, who had sent a note to the judge on the fifth day of deliberations stating that she was under “duress” and feared “retaliation,” according to a brief filed by the defendants.
Anderson ultimately dismissed the juror, who said later that she felt she could not deliberate with her fellow jurors to reach a fair and impartial verdict in the case, the brief states.
Burns told the panel that Anderson should not have dismissed the juror because there was a strong indication that she only asked to be dismissed because her views conflicted with those of the other jurors.
But Aull brushed that argument aside. She said that after going “further into her own thought process” the juror had become “convinced” that should could not “come to the right conclusion.”
“That to me, based on my personal experience, indicates she may have trouble sitting in judgment of people,” Aull said.
Circuit Judges Ferdinand Francis Fernandez and Richard Clifton also sat on the panel.
Aull and Landau declined to comment outside the courtroom.
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