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Inmate killed weeks after judge asked that sheriff's officials review his safety

The judge asked for a reassessment of the inmate's housing situation, saying he had been 'hassled' in the jail. But sheriff's officials have no record of having received his request.

March 26, 2011|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times
  • Alfredo Najera stands beside his son's casket during the funeral. Jonathan Najera was strangled in his cell after telling a judge he had been hassled by other inmates.
Alfredo Najera stands beside his son's casket during the funeral.… (Najera family )

A Los Angeles County jail inmate who expressed concerns about his safety was strangled in his cell weeks after a judge asked that sheriff's officials reevaluate the man's custody arrangements, according to court records and interviews.

Sheriff's officials said they had no records showing they had received the judge's request or reassessed Jonathan Najera's housing situation.

The possibility that the judge's request never reached sheriff's officials and the lack of records to clarify what happened represent a potentially dangerous flaw in communication between jail and court officials, inmate advocates say.

Records show the 20-year-old inmate did move to another cell on the same floor a day after the judge's request, but authorities suspect that move was the result of routine jail flow. Whether the move addressed the inmate's complaints of being "hassled" by other inmates is unknown, authorities said.

Homicide detectives have remained tight-lipped about the jailhouse attack earlier this month and have not released the name of Najera's cellmate who allegedly confessed to the killing.

Najera, who was in jail for attempted murder, shared a cell on the third floor of Men's Central Jail with three others. Authorities said they believe he was killed overnight. His body was discovered by deputies when it was apparently dragged out by one of his cellmates during a morning "pill call," in which some inmates receive medications. His killing wasn't detected for hours because deputies doing the rounds thought he was asleep.

At a hearing about a month earlier, Judge Daniel Feldstern and Najera's attorney discussed the inmate's safety concerns. Based on that off-the-record discussion, the judge said in court that Najera had been "somewhat hassled by other inmates in his current custodial setting. So I would just simply ask the Sheriff's [Department] to reexamine his circumstances and consider putting him in a place where he can avoid that kind of contact."

In an interview, attorney Steven Flanagan said his client wouldn't tell him specifically why he felt unsafe. "He didn't want anything on the record," Flanagan said. "You can't go back to county jail with something on a piece of paper that indicates you want to go somewhere else."

Court orders from judges are generally noted in a minute order and communicated to the Sheriff's Department through the bailiff. In Najera's case, it appears the judge's request did not reach the level of a court order.

"If there's a discussion that doesn't amount to an order then it doesn't go anywhere because there hasn't been an order made," said court spokeswoman Mary Hearn. "We don't have a process for addressing recommendations."

Court and jail officials could not quantify how often judges make requests that don't amount to court orders.

Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Najera's move to another cell may have addressed Najera's concerns because he didn't complain to sheriff's officials or express fears for his safety when he was sentenced to prison days before his death.

"If we had known something we certainly would have done something," Whitmore said, adding that the sheriff's courts division has opened an inquiry into the handling of the judge's request.

When Najera was first booked in the county jail system in 2009, he was kept away from the two other defendants in his shooting case. The three, members of a small street gang called 2XL, were arrested in connection with a 2008 shooting near a mobile home park in Canyon Country. They were on an evening drive when Najera spotted a rival gang member and pointed him out, prosecutors alleged.

The other passenger in the car jumped out, chased the man down and shot him in the neck — leaving him near death on a ventilator for three days, authorities said.

Najera pleaded no contest to attempted murder and was sentenced to nine years in state prison.

Communication between the court system and the jails regarding inmate security has been scrutinized before. In 2004, a Men's Central Jail inmate was killed in his cell by a murder suspect he had just testified against. That suspect was supposed to be in a cell by himself and limited in his movement around the jail after an attempted escape, but he was never properly reclassified. As a result, he was able to move around within the jail, making it to the other man's cell and attacking him, authorities said.

Both men had also been designated as "keep aways," which in sheriff's jargon meant they were to be kept on separate floors, and not necessarily in solitary confinement or any other type of enhanced security setup. However, it became clear after the incident that the attorneys and the judge on the case had conflicting understandings of the "keep away" designation, according to a civilian watchdog report.

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