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Jailhouse, rocked

The Orange County Sheriff's Dept. can't be trusted to investigate its role in an inmate's beating death.

October 25, 2006

IT WAS EXCEPTIONALLY bad jail keeping that allowed an inmate to be beaten to death recently in an Orange County jail. It would be even worse public policy if the same department that enabled the killing was allowed to investigate it.

The Times has reported that a deputy inaccurately told inmates at Theo Lacy Branch Jail, a low-security facility, that John Chamberlain was accused of child molestation (the actual charges were two misdemeanors related to the possession of child pornography). Even if the deputy had been correct, releasing such information to inmates is at best irresponsible and at worst (as it was here) fatal. Telling prisoners that a fellow inmate is a child molester is tantamount to issuing an open invitation to attack the man.

As inmates began harassing Chamberlain, his attorney called the jail hours before the attack to ask for protective custody -- but the shift wasn't made. Chamberlain was kicked in the shower, dragged to his cell and beaten some more; deputies say the episode lasted 15 to 30 minutes. His assailants were left with enough time to wash their clothes. Even then, deputies didn't learn about the beating until an inmate told them.

The first response from the sheriff's office was that there are "blind spots" that the camera at the guard station does not show. That may well be true -- but it is a reason for more vigilant guarding, not an excuse for lack of it.

This long chain of inadequate guarding practices, whether intentional or inadvertent, points to systemic "blind spots" not only in the jail but within the sheriff's jail operation. Sheriff Michael S. Carona and his department almost certainly bear the major share of responsibility for the death. With so much at stake, Carona should not be the one in charge of the investigation. If he will not hand over the reins to the district attorney's office, then the grand jury -- which has stepped in on other conflict-ridden cases in the past -- should begin a separate probe.

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