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Tape Shows Staff Striking Inmates

Recording is of a fight at Stockton youth prison. Prosecutors say they doubt felony charges could be proved.

March 18, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Corrections officials said Wednesday that a video camera captured "shocking" footage of counselors punching one young man and kicking another at a juvenile prison in Stockton.

Prosecutors, presented with the tape, expressed concern about the Jan. 20 incident but so far have declined to press criminal charges recommended by the California Youth Authority.

A tape of the episode, officials said, shows one CYA counselor sitting atop a juvenile's back, lifting the ward's head by the hair and hitting him 28 times. Another counselor kicked the second youth in the face while he was lying on his stomach with handcuffs on.

Neither juvenile suffered serious injuries. However, an internal investigation by the CYA found that counselors had used unnecessary force in quelling the scuffle, which reportedly began when one of the juveniles punched a counselor in the face.

Youth Authority Director Walter Allen said he had seen the tape and called it "very troubling."

The investigation, which is continuing, also determined that the counselors -- and four other employees at the N.A. Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility -- allegedly filed false reports about the incident.

In an interview, a San Joaquin County deputy district attorney who viewed the tape said that while the behavior of one counselor "started rising to the level of going overboard, we did not believe it was a prosecutable case."

"Did he go overboard? Perhaps," said the deputy district attorney, John Soldati. "It was a fairly close call.... But in the end, we didn't think we could convince a jury that there was an assault."

After local prosecutors said they would not file felony charges, the matter was sent by the CYA to Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who has so far declined to act.

In a letter to the Youth Authority explaining that position, Supervising Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael A. Canzoneri said the state's policy in such cases is simply to review whether the district attorney had abused its discretion in deciding whether to file charges. In this instance, Canzoneri said, the answer to that question was no.

On Wednesday, a Lockyer spokeswoman said the attorney general's office based that decision on incomplete information: They believed that local prosecutors planned to file misdemeanor charges against two counselors. But, informed that no charges were planned, the attorney general's office has decided to take a second look at the case -- but only the narrow question of whether prosecutors abused their discretion.

CYA officials are pushing hard for a criminal prosecution and hope to persuade Lockyer to reexamine the case on its merits. If not, they said it's possible they may take the matter to the U.S. attorney's office.

"The door on criminal prosecution has not been closed," said Tip Kindel, assistant secretary at the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency. "Based on what's been found so far, we believe this warrants action."

The CYA's Allen agreed, adding that the allegations of counselors filing false reports "raises the issue of the code of silence, which I take very seriously. The vast majority of our employees are wonderful and dedicated, and we can't tolerate behavior that hurts them and undermines our mission."

The incident and the investigation were first disclosed last month in the Stockton Record, and the videotape was first reported Wednesday in the San Jose Mercury News.

Efforts to reach relatives of the young men -- Vincent Baker of Stockton and Narcisco Morales of Madera -- were unsuccessful. But a Stockton attorney hired by Baker's mother said he was preparing to file a lawsuit against the CYA, alleging excessive force, among other things.

"Putting him in handcuffs and kicking him in the head, that's probably a violation of civil rights," said attorney Davey Turner. "Their job is to restrain him and get him under control, but after they do that they're not allowed to kick him in the head."

Baker, 19, was sentenced to the CYA in 2000 on a charge of first-degree burglary. Morales, 21, is serving time for carjacking and auto theft.

The incident at Chaderjian, which houses some of the state's most violent young inmates, erupted during a meeting between Morales and Baker and two correctional counselors in an office in their housing unit, Pajaro Hall.

According to Turner and sources close to the investigation, the scuffle broke out shortly before noon after Morales punched correctional counselor Delwin Brown in the face and then ran.

Brown caught Morales, and scuffled with him, while counselor Marcel Berry grabbed Baker. Both youths wound up facedown just outside the office, where a video camera began recording the scene.

Officials said the tape, which was not made public, shows Brown sitting on Morales' back and punching him repeatedly in the head, at one point switching hands.

Berry, meanwhile, is seen handcuffing Baker and at one point kicking him in the face.

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