Calling it a case about "truth, justice, freedom and the American way of life," a lawyer for five Mexican men allegedly beaten by Victorville sheriff's deputies in 1988 asked jurors Friday to award them $6.7 million to "send a message" that "we don't tolerate this kind of conduct here in the United States, ever."
Stephen Yagman told jurors all they had to do was "look at the videotape" that recorded the incident to see that the five San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department deputies brutally beat the men and unlawfully arrested them in a Victorville front yard on June 30, 1988.
Jury deliberations began late Friday.
In closing arguments of the three-week civil trial in Los Angeles Federal Court, Yagman said of contradictory accounts from deputies: "God only knows what these officers would have said happened if this videotape didn't exist."
But David A. Lawrence, attorney for the deputies, cautioned jurors that the four-minute videotape of the confrontation offers only one, limited perspective on the incident. Too conveniently, he added, it begins after one of the men shoved a deputy and tried to grab the guns of two of the officers. Lawrence asserted that jurors were being shown only part of what he believes was once a longer videotape.
The case of the so-called "Victorville Five" is one of the first in which a videotape has been used as evidence in a police brutality case in Federal Court. Latino activists from San Bernardino County say the film also has provided the first substantive evidence of what they allege has been a pattern of racially motivated acts of brutality by deputies against minorities.
The videotape, made by a neighbor, "captures in living color the acts of police brutality we have said all along take place in our community," Armando Navarro, executive director of a San Bernardino-based civil rights organization, said at a news conference on the courthouse steps Friday.
Relations between law enforcement and minorities have improved dramatically since the 1988 incident, which began with a complaint about a loud, drunken party, Navarro said. But it took this case and "the videotape of the violence to begin a process of perestroika within the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department," he said.
Also named in the civil rights suit are Sheriff Floyd Tidwell and the County of San Bernardino. U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima has ruled that claims against Tidwell and the county would be tried separately by the same jury, but only if jurors decide that the constitutional rights of one or more of the plaintiffs were violated.
The plaintiffs--Jose Serrano; his father, Efren Serrano; his brother, Victor Serrano, and friends Auro Ruiz and Javier Ruelas--claim that they suffered serious bruises and injuries that went untreated. The lawyer for the deputies has argued that the injuries amount to bruises and scratches, none of which required hospitalization or immediate medical attention.
Yagman asked jurors Friday to award the plaintiffs $5,700 to cover medical bills, a total of $1.7 million to compensate them for their pain and suffering, and another $5 million in punitive damages as a message to the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, and law enforcement agencies elsewhere.
In his closing arguments, Lawrence summarized contradictions in the testimony of the five men about the alleged beatings. He said deputies did use batons, fists, elbows and a chokehold to subdue the five men. But that force, he said, was needed to control combative men who had been drinking beer for more than 12 hours in their front yard.
"It's very easy (for jurors) to look at that videotape . . . because there is no risk involved," Lawrence told them. "It's very different if you are a deputy (looking at the same situation)."