Despite a judge's order, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has refused to allow an attorney to take photographs of a client he said was beaten so badly by jail deputies that he was unrecognizable.
Deputy Public Defender John F. Montoya said the inmate, Federico Bustos, suffered severe bruising two months ago to his face, stomach, chest, right arm, both legs and feet. Bustos' left eye was so swollen that Montoya said he initially feared his client had lost the eye.
Sheriff's officials repeatedly turned down his requests to allow a public defender's investigator into the jail with a camera to document the injuries, even after he obtained a court order permitting photos, he said.
"He was so severely beaten that I could not initially recognize him," Montoya said. "I don't understand what the Sheriff's Department is trying to hide."
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore described Bustos as an "extraordinarily aggressive" inmate who was known to hurt himself and others. Bustos, he said, was injured when he attacked deputies who were trying to remove him from his cell after noticing him behaving strangely.
Whitmore said the inmate was not injured as seriously as his attorney alleged.
He said the department decided not to comply with the order after consulting with the county counsel's office. Sheriff's officials had recorded the encounter with a video camera and plan to give the public defender's office a copy of the recording once an internal affairs investigation is complete, he said.
"We have nothing to hide," Whitmore said. "What's ironic about this is we extracted him for his own protection."
The dispute comes as the county jails face renewed scrutiny after allegations by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and inmates of abuses by sheriff's staff in the nation's largest local jail system.
Two months ago, an ACLU observer alleged in a court declaration that she witnessed two deputies treat an inmate like "a punching bag," unjustifiably beating him as he lay unconscious. An internal sheriff's log accused the inmate of punching the two deputies. The Sheriff's Department is investigating the allegation.
Bustos, 30, is charged with murder and attempted murder in the kidnapping and shooting of two men in 2006. Prosecutors allege that he and others bound the victims' hands, eyes, mouths and feet with duct tape and drove them to a deserted area of Sierra Madre, where the victims were shot in the head. One survived.
Court records show that Bustos refused to leave his cell on several occasions when he was due to appear in court. In January, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Janice Claire Croft declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial and ordered him transferred to Patton State Hospital. She also ordered that he could be involuntarily given anti-psychotic medication.
Bustos was awaiting a transfer to Patton when Montoya learned on Feb. 23 that his client had been moved to the jail ward at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center.
After visiting the inmate, Montoya said, he wanted to document the injuries for himself in case they provided evidence of his client's mental problems and were relevant in his criminal defense.
Montoya described the department's refusal to comply with the court order to permit photographs as "patently self-serving and outrageous."
"I have never represented anyone who was as severely beaten by the police as Federico Bustos was," said Montoya, a 32-year veteran defense attorney.
But Assistant County Counsel Roger Granbo said the inmate was under medical observation in a secure area of the jail where neither civilians nor cameras are allowed. He said his office was never given an opportunity to oppose Montoya's request for the order and had concerns about its validity.
Granbo said the county was preparing to go to court to challenge the order when Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry Smerling, who signed the order, called the Sheriff's Department. A lieutenant told the judge why the department was not allowing the defense investigator into Bustos' housing area, Granbo said. Granbo noted that neither the court nor the defense attorney sought to pursue the matter after the conversation.
"We were not defying the order. We wanted to find out where the order came from and test its validity," Granbo said. "It's an order that we would have challenged…. We thought the issue was over."
Montoya said he decided against going back to court to compel the department to comply because several days had passed and Bustos' injuries would have begun healing.
Michael Gennaco, who heads the Office of Independent Review, said one of the attorneys in his unit watched the video of the cell extraction and that nothing in the recording "jumps out to you as 'this is clearly excessive force' … but a video is only part of the story."
Gennaco said the inmate's cell was small, and at least four deputies were involved, which meant that some of the action was blocked from the video camera. Bustos' injuries were mainly bruises to his head and he suffered no broken bones, Gennaco said.