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Jury Acquits Santa Clara County Correctional Deputies of Assault

Posted on Saturday, September 01, 2018 at 12:00AM

JUDITH A. ODBERT 
Senior Associate Attorney
JOSHUA A. OLANDER
Associate Attorney
Mastagni Holstedt, APC

On May 2, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Correctional Deputies Phillip Abecendario and Tuan Le were acquitted of charges alleging that they committed felony assault under color of authority against an inmate in July 2015. Following a six-week trial, the jury deliberated for less than four hours before acquitting both officers. The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office alleged that the deputies broke Ruben Garcia’s jaw and caused a facial laceration requiring stitches in retaliation for Garcia calling them “bitches.” Deputies Abecendario and Le were represented by Judith A. Odbert of Mastagni Holstedt, APC, and Michael Williamson of Stone Busailah, LLP.

Garcia — a gang member, admitted “shot caller” and career criminal with convictions that run the gamut from armed robbery to child molestation — did not report the alleged assault until he was interviewed during the investigation of the death of inmate Michael Tyree over a month later. In a blatant attempt to capitalize on the death of another inmate, Garcia initially claimed he was assaulted by the same three deputies allegedly responsible for Tyree’s death. Despite the fact that Garcia’s initial claim was proven to be false, in addition to countless other proven lies, the District Attorney’s Office chose to proceed with its case against Abecendario and Le.

After Garcia changed his story to allege he was assaulted by Deputies Abecendario and Le, Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office detectives made unannounced visits to the homes of both deputies. Both deputies, confident they had nothing to hide, voluntarily spoke with detectives without the benefit of counsel. Minor inconsistences in the deputies’ recollection of events, jail records, surveillance video and inmate statements became the foundation for the prosecution’s case. Despite the fact that their alleged victim was a proven chronic liar, the District Attorney’s Office argued that the deputies’ “lies” during their voluntary statements demonstrated consciousness of guilt.

According to Deputy Le, less than 24 hours after Garcia arrived at the main jail, Le had to break up a fight between Garcia and another inmate. Garcia was injured during the fight and was taken to the hospital, where he received stitches for a laceration above his left eye and was diagnosed with a hairline fracture to his jaw. Garcia told medical personnel he received his injuries during a fight with another inmate. Defense counsel was able to track down the treating physician’s assistant, who since had relocated to Southern California, and successfully impeached Garcia’s false testimony that he told medical staff he was assaulted by correctional deputies.

The prosecution relied heavily on previous “consistent” statements made by Garcia to a courtroom bailiff, nurse, paralegal and his mother about who was responsible for his injuries. This testimony, however, was effectively discredited during cross-examination. The prosecution also relied on inmate witnesses. One of these witnesses recanted his earlier statement to investigators and testified that Garcia’s allegations were false and made to support Garcia’s pending lawsuit against the County. The inmate testified he had initially agreed to assist Garcia by providing false testimony in exchange for a portion of his lawsuit proceeds. Ultimately, Garcia’s credibility was undermined largely by his own statements. Defense counsel spent countless hours poring through hundreds of jail calls, culminating in a cross-examination in which Garcia was confronted with his own words that contradicted his trial testimony.

It is imperative that officers “look out for themselves” whenever questioned by a supervisor or investigator. An officer should always consult with a knowledgeable attorney before responding to questions concerning an investigation that could possibly lead to punitive actions or, as in this case, criminal charges.

Look Out for Yourself
Whenever you are to be questioned by a supervisor:

1. Ask, “Can my answers lead to discipline?”
2. Ask, “What is this investigation about?”
3. If the investigation is possibly criminal, assert your constitutional rights to remain silent and to have the assistance of counsel before answering questions (Miranda).
4. Demand the right to have a representative before and during questioning.

Always consult with a knowledgeable representative/lawyer before responding to any report, letter, memorandum and/or questions concerning an investigation that could possibly lead to punitive actions and/or criminal charges. If ordered to proceed in the absence of counsel, record or memorialize the following:

Nonwaiver Statement 
I have been refused the right to have a representative of my choice. I understand that I am being ordered to make a report and answer questions and that if I do not comply with the order, I may be disciplined for insubordination. Therefore, I have no alternative but to obey.  However, by so doing, I do not waive my constitutional rights to remain silent or the protections under state law.

About the Authors
Judith A. Odbert is a senior associate attorney with Mastagni Holstedt, APC. She represented Abecendario and Le. She practiced as an attorney in the Sacramento County Public Defender’s Office for 25 years, concluding her career there as the Supervising Assistant Public Defender.
Joshua A. Olander is an associate attorney in the labor and employment department at Mastagni Holstedt, APC. He represents public-sector employees in administrative and disciplinary investigations, hearings, critical incident investigations and criminal defense. 
 

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