Los Angeles County officials have tentatively agreed to pay $1 million to resolve a lawsuit filed by relatives of a mentally ill inmate who was beaten to death after deputies left him unsupervised with a group of gang members.
The settlement, expected to be finalized this week, stems from the Nov. 16, 2005, slaying of Chadwick Shane Cochran, the victim of an alleged attack by two gang members who took turns jumping off a steel bench and stomping on the dying man's head as other inmates watched.
The attack took place in the downtown Men's Central Jail in a room containing about 30 inmates. Deputies who could have been watching the inmates were instead searching cells in another part of the jail, looking for weapons and other contraband, sheriff's officials said.
"The jailers simply were not attending to their duty. It's as simple as that," said R. Samuel Paz, one of the attorneys who represented Cochran's family. "You hear the argument from Sheriff [Lee] Baca that they're understaffed. But that wasn't the problem here. There was a fully staffed group of people, and they simply weren't doing their job."
Donovan M. Main, chief deputy Los Angeles County counsel, declined to comment on the proposed settlement because the written agreement has not been filed with the court.
In the last six months, the county has paid more than $6.5 million to resolve lawsuits filed over violence and medical care in the county jails.
Since 2000, 15 inmates have been killed in the nation's largest jail system, including most recently a mentally ill man who was strangled by an inmate awaiting trial for killing his cellmate in state prison. The Sheriff's Department is investigating why the mentally ill inmate, Kurt Karcher, was assigned to bunk with someone who had been charged with killing his prior cellmate.
In the Cochran case, attorneys faulted the department for leaving the inmates alone in a holding room for at least 20 minutes and for failing to give Cochran a new identification card when they transferred him out of the mental health unit. Other inmates mistakenly thought that Cochran's red mental health identification card meant that he was a police informant.
Sheriff's officials said that Cochran and the other inmates had finished exercising in the jail yard and were in the holding room eating dinner, instead of in their cells, where they normally ate.
Because a window had been painted over, deputies could not see the inmates from an exterior hallway. According to court testimony, the suspected gang members beat Cochran with their fists and dinner trays before stomping him.
"Some of the inmates in the room were screaming for the guards to come," said Paz. "But no one came."
After a lengthy internal affairs investigation, sheriff's officials declined to discipline any deputies involved in Cochran's handling. There was no policy preventing deputies from placing inmates unsupervised in that holding room, officials said.
Paz said one deputy who should have been watching Cochran testified at a deposition that she was talking to a sergeant in another part of the jail. Another said he was observing, but not participating in, a search of inmates' cells for contraband.
The two inmates accused of killing Cochran, Christian Perez and Heriberto Eddie Rodriguez, are in jail awaiting trial. Both could face the death penalty.