Illegal immigrant, accused of molestation, was left brain-damaged after inmates attacked him, his lawyer says.
County officials have agreed to pay more than $4 million to settle a lawsuit brought by an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was beaten by inmates while in custody at the Orange County jail, the man's attorney said Monday.
The settlement appears to be the largest ever paid by Orange County for an in-custody incident involving county sheriffs, according to county officials and the man's lawyer.
Fernando Ramirez, then 21, was left brain-damaged by inmates in Module A at the Orange County Central Jail in June 2006. He was jailed after a 6-year-old girl told her mother a stranger touched her over her clothes on her private parts at El Salvador Park in Santa Ana. Ramirez was charged with child molestation but eventually pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of non-sexual battery, said his attorney, Mark Eisenberg.
But Eisenberg said the jail's classification of his client contributed to the attack because other prisoners became aware of the sexual assault allegation. Deputies in charge of monitoring the jail that night were elsewhere in the jail when the attack occurred, Eisenberg said.
The ensuing beating left Ramirez with the intellect of a 4-year-old child. He is unable to walk unassisted and will need help for the rest of his life, said Eisenberg.
County officials declined comment on the settlement. However, a spokesman did confirm that the next highest pay out for an in-custody incident was a $650,000 settlement paid in 2002 to the family of a man who died in 1998 after scuffling with deputies in the jail.
County supervisors gave their lawyers authorization to settle the lawsuit earlier this month in a closed session.
Eisenberg said a final settlement was approved Apr. 17 and described the amount as $3.75 million for Ramirez's family along with nearly $900,000 to cover all outstanding medical liens for medical care rendered while in custody.
The attack occurred months before another highly publicized inmate jail beating which resulted in the death of John Derek Chamberlain, who had been jailed on suspicion of possessing child pornography.
After The Orange County Register published an investigation of deputies' role in that case, a criminal grand jury probed the Chamberlain beating.
The grand jury described a culture among deputies of lax oversight of prisoners as well as a culture of cover-up regarding deputy actions. Two assistant sheriffs and seven deputies resigned during the fallout from the grand jury investigation.
The disclosures from the Chamberlain grand jury, as well as the 2007 federal indictment of former Sheriff Mike Carona on unrelated corruption charges, presented challenges for the county during a jury trial.
"The county was vigorously fighting any effort by Ramirez and his counsel to have anything introduced from Chamberlain," Eisenberg said, adding that he reviewed such motions during trial preparations.
"I think the grand jury report was influential," he said. "I also think the criminal conviction of Sheriff Carona, albeit on the limited count of witness tampering, was also influential."
"It was a chapter in the county's history that needed to be closed. And these two factors, Chamberlain and Carona, played a role," Eisenberg said. "It certainly influenced the powers that be to conclude that this case was one that should be settled."
Eisenberg said his side also had challenges facing a conservative jury pool in Orange County, because of Ramirez's immigration status and the nature of his arrest.
"Both sides had problems," he said.
For example, Chamberlain's family accepted a settlement of $600,000 in large part because of the potential impact on jurors due to the sexual nature of the allegations against him.
Eisenberg called the settlement "fair" noting that it will take care of Ramirez's medical needs for the rest of his life. He credited county officials for "stepping up and doing the fair and responsible thing."
While County Supervisor John Moorlach would not comment on the details of the Ramirez settlement, he did say that Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has turned around a lax culture within the jails.
His chief of staff, Mario Mainero, recently took a tour of the jails and said the infrastructure, staff and inmates showed a very different attitude since his first jail tour in the wake of the Chamberlain death.
Moorlach also said several changes - such as cameras, more visible and mobile guards and a full shuffling of top managers - has helped to begin changing the culture that contributed to the Chamberlain and Ramirez beatings.
"We're seeing management get involved," Moorlach said. "And what I'm getting as feedback is that we're seeing dramatic change." ..Source.. by NORBERTO SANTANA JR. and TONY SAAVEDRA