VENTURA — Ruling that a law enforcement officer's constitutional rights against self-incrimination cannot outweigh the needs of a slaying probe, a judge ordered the Ventura County Sheriff's Department on Monday to surrender a deputy's account of the night he fatally shot a drunk intruder.
Sheriff's Department attorneys had insisted that Senior Deputy Steven Lengyel's statements to internal investigators about killing Jack Dale Sexton were protected by his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
But an attorney for Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury argued that his office should have access to Lengyel's statements.
Municipal Judge David R. Long agreed.
Long called Lengyel's argument something that "I don't view as a minor claim to privacy." But he added, "That is counterbalanced by a public need" to learn what happened the night of Jan. 27.
Penal Code Section 832.7 requires peace officers to "surrender certain rights," Long said.
The law says peace officers must answer questions from investigators or risk losing their jobs. But it also requires all such coerced statements to be kept under seal to protect the officers' 5th Amendment rights.
Long issued a tentative ruling ordering Sheriff Larry Carpenter to turn over Lengyel's statements to Bradbury's staff. The ruling also requires prosecutors to keep a complete log of people handling the statement, to ensure that it is not leaked to the public.
Sexton's family was grateful for the ruling, which gives investigators access to the sole eyewitness account of the shooting.
"Now they can find out the sheriff's statements, his version of what happened in that home," said Joey Sexton, Jack Sexton's mother. "Too many things went wrong that night. . . . It went from bad to worse to worst."
Jack Sexton, a 26-year-old Oxnard man, had been drinking heavily the night of Jan. 26.
He got into a fight at a Super Bowl party, accidentally backed his car into a ditch, and then apparently began walking through the surrounding neighborhood, police have said.
Family members said they believe Sexton was going door-to-door looking for help.
But police said Sexton tried to kick in the door of a library, then banged on the door of 81-year-old Lillian Folk's house and yelled at her.
Frightened, Folk ran across the street to get neighbor Lengyel--then off-duty--who ventured into her house minutes later with another neighbor, Chris Van Tilburg.
Sexton--who had wandered out and knocked on someone else's door in the meantime--wandered back into Folk's house and confronted the two men in the kitchen.
There, he hit Van Tilburg without provocation, police said.
Moments later, as Van Tilburg was looking away, Lengyel shot Sexton once in the back, police said. Sexton fled the home and died in a nearby driveway.
As required by law, Lengyel discussed the shooting with sheriff's internal investigators and the interview transcripts were sealed.
The Sheriff's Department cleared Lengyel of any wrongdoing.
But Bradbury's office--which investigates all officer-involved shootings--sought to read the transcripts to make its own determination of what happened.
When Carpenter's staff balked--at the request of the Ventura County Deputy Sheriff's Assn.--Bradbury's staff petitioned the court for a ruling. Lengyel's case is different because he was apparently the only eyewitness to Sexton's death, said attorney Glen M. Reiser, who represented Bradbury.
Lengyel's attorneys said they have not decided whether to appeal Long's ruling, but that if they do, they will not release Lengyel's statement to Bradbury.
That decision disappointed Sexton's family:
"It's hard to be patient month after month after month," said Renay Casey, Sexton's sister. "But it's a paper game, a court game, and we just have to be patient."
Her mother added, "We want to know what happened in there. Protecting [Lengyel's] privacy is important, but it won't change what happened to Jackie."