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Deputies Videotaped Beating Migrants Won't Face Charges

Violence: There is not enough evidence that they violated federal civil rights laws, Justice Department says. Mexican American groups express disappointment at decision.

June 13, 1998|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Justice Department said Friday it will not prosecute two Riverside County sheriff's deputies who were videotaped beating two illegal immigrants with batons after a harrowing high-speed chase two years ago.

While indicating that the deputies' conduct may have been a violation of policy, the department said there was insufficient evidence to prove that they violated federal civil rights laws.

Those laws require prosecutors to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the deputies acted willfully and intentionally.

The beatings were captured on videotape by television news crews after a smuggler's pickup truck, loaded with illegal immigrants, came to a stop on the Pomona Freeway in South El Monte after an 80-mile chase from Temecula.

The episode drew protests from civil rights groups in the United States and from the Mexican government.

One of the deputies, Tracy Watson, was subsequently fired. His partner, Kurt Franklin, was suspended briefly. And the two beating victims received settlements of $370,000 each from Riverside County.

Before announcing the decision not to prosecute, representatives of the U.S. attorney's office met privately with Mexican American community leaders.

"We didn't expect to change any opinions," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael Gennaco, who spearheaded the investigation, "but we felt we owed them the courtesy of an explanation of how we arrived at this decision."

Indeed, few seemed to have been swayed.

Steve Figueroa, president of the Mexican American Political Assn., said he was "very disappointed with the decision by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno not to prosecute this hate crime by Riverside County sheriff's deputies."

Other Mexican American leaders voiced similar sentiments.

Riverside County Sheriff Larry D. Smith said he was pleased with the decision.

"I support that decision and believe it is correct," Smith said. "The Riverside Sheriff's Department concluded its administrative investigation swiftly and appropriately. I am glad that the U.S. attorney has also completed [its] investigation and the matter can now be put to rest."

When he learned of the decision, Watson was choked with emotion, said his lawyer, Michael P. Stone.

"Tracy has been through a lot," Stone said. "He was doing nothing more than what he had been trained to do. The government had an unwinnable case."

Now working as a freelance private investigator, Watson is planning a lawsuit to regain his job, Stone said. Watson also has a lawsuit pending against the Riverside County Sheriff's Department for his treatment immediately after the incident.

Gennaco said the decision not to prosecute was personally approved by Reno.

It followed what he said was an exhaustive, two-year investigation and interviews with 200 to 300 witnesses.

The case turned, Gennaco said, on the deputies' intent, "whether they intended to punish, to impose street justice" when they confronted the two Mexicans at the end of the chase.

To establish some insight into the deputies' state of mind, he said that investigators tried to piece together the circumstances surrounding the chase as well as the beatings themselves.

During the course of the chase, he said, the pickup's driver tried to force other cars off the highway, causing some cars to collide. Also, he said, bottles, luggage and pieces of a fiberglass camper cover were hurled by the occupants onto the highway for reasons never determined.

Gennaco noted that the pickup driver, who was captured, later pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon, a result of his driving.

In reviewing the actual beatings, the investigators analyzed videotapes made by cameras aboard three television station helicopters. They matched those tapes with an audiotape recording of the deputies as they swung their batons. The recorder was in the shirt pocket of a California Highway Patrol officer who arrived at the scene immediately after the stop. During a briefing for reporters Friday, prosecutors played the tape recording in sync with the videotapes.

It showed the deputies repeatedly shouting instructions in English to the illegal immigrants to get down to the ground. At one point, Watson is heard saying "manos aqui," or "hands here" in Spanish. Almost simultaneously, however, the deputies swung their batons at the suspects' legs and arms.

By not giving the Mexicans a chance to obey before they came down with their batons, the deputies might have violated their own department's policies, said one prosecutor. That, however, would not in itself constitute a crime under federal civil rights law.

"Watson had no idea he was being audiotaped," said one of the prosecutors. "If he really intended to inflict street justice, why did he bother to issue commands? Why didn't he just whack, whack them?"

While the beatings have been likened in some quarters to the attack on Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers, federal prosecutors took pains Friday to distinguish between the two events.

King's beating lasted more than a minute and occurred during a time when he was under control, they said. In contrast, the Mexican immigrants' beating lasted 16 seconds and stopped the moment they were subdued.

The prosecutors also said they looked into media reports that the deputies uttered racial epithets while they were shouting at the Mexicans.

"That absolutely did not happen," said one prosecutor.

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