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Taped Beating of 2 Young Inmates Prompts Outrage

March 21, 2004|Eric Bailey and Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writers

STOCKTON — In the spare confines of a back office in the courthouse here, the grainy videotape rolled Friday. By her own account, Lori Baker recoiled.

There, behind closed doors, Baker watched the flickering TV images of the latest scandal to hit California's embattled correctional system -- video footage of her teenage son and another young man being pummeled two months ago by juvenile counselors to whom their care had been entrusted. The videotape has not been made public.

For almost a minute, the screen displayed the silent images of the two burly counselors beating Vincent Baker and Narcisco Morales at a juvenile prison in Stockton.

Whacks with fists, a knee to the head, a kick to the face. The mother watched it once. Then again, and again, and then a fourth time. She was left with an inescapable conclusion.

"What they did to him, there's no reason, there's no excuse," Lori Baker said after watching the video in the public defender's office. "And they need to be prosecuted. They have to answer for what they did to him."

The incident, disclosed this week, has brought outrage in the state Capitol and is under review by the attorney general's office for possible criminal charges against the counselors.

While officials with the California Youth Authority say the fight was triggered by a punch thrown by Morales, an internal investigation concluded that correctional counselors Delwin Brown and Marcel Berry had used unnecessary force in subduing the young inmates.

New details about the Jan. 20 incident were provided to The Times by a CYA official familiar with the investigation. The source, who has seen the videotape and asked not to be identified, said the conduct of Berry, who scuffled with Baker, was in some ways more troubling than that of Brown.

According to officials who have seen the videotape, Brown is in the foreground in the picture and can be seen punching Morales in the head as many as 28 times. But the CYA official said Berry's conduct "actually is worse, in terms of the potential for injury."

The official said that, over a period of about 55 seconds, Berry punched Baker several times in the kidney area and "knee-dropped" him five or six times.

"Basically, he bent one knee and then dropped himself down on the kid's head and neck while he was down on the floor," the source said. "This is happening when the kid is doing nothing but trying to protect his head.... It's pretty horrific if you ask me, and I've seen a lot."

The official said he was also troubled by the behavior of two other counselors in the living unit who were with Brown and Berry as they hit the youths.

One of them, the source said, inappropriately sprayed Morales with a chemical agent even after the young man was no longer resisting.

The beating stopped, the source said, only when the two onlookers tapped Brown on the shoulder because additional officers were responding to an alarm.

"What you can infer from that is, this beating would have gone on if other officers from outside the housing unit hadn't arrived," the official said.

After their investigation, CYA officials presented the case to the San Joaquin County district attorney, expecting that felony criminal assault charges would be filed against Brown and Berry. Local prosecutors declined, saying they did not believe that the conduct amounted to criminal assault.

But the CYA official took exception to that decision, saying the video footage was "unambiguous and shows clear uses of excessive force."

In addition, the youth corrections official said false-report charges could be filed against four staff members who had witnessed the incident. Their accounts, the source said, did not match the videotape.

CYA officials said all six staff members had been on administrative leave since the episode. An internal disciplinary investigation, separate from the inquiry that could lead to criminal charges, will conclude next week and could result in the firing of one or more of the counselors.

Lori Baker, meanwhile, has filed a civil lawsuit against the state. An April 10 hearing is scheduled to hear a motion by Baker's attorney to ensure that the videotape is preserved.

The two young men are in isolation at the county's adult jail. Morales, 21, was serving time at CYA for carjacking and auto theft. Baker, 19, was sentenced to CYA in 2000 for first-degree burglary.

Baker's mother said he had refrained from telling her any details of the beating, fearing word might get back to guards and he would suffer reprisals.

If anything, Vincent Baker is wise to the ways of the world behind bars. He has spent half his teenage years in custody.

His first arrest, in 1997, was for carrying four marijuana cigarettes to school. Raised mostly in a single-parent household, he had room to roam while his mother worked, and he sought acceptance from the wrong crowd. An assault and the residential burglary sent him back to juvenile jail.

"He's missed a big part of his life," his mother said. "He went in a young boy, and he grew up to be a man behind bars."

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