A situation in San Diego in which a reporter was subpoenaed for materials related to stories she’s written on the exceptionally high number of in-custody deaths occurring in county jails bears some similarities to recent events here in Los Angeles.
Although LA County’s much larger jail population has had fewer suicides than those reported in San Diego County since 2007, those inmates also suffered due to a lack of leadership from the top under former Sheriff Lee Baca. The awful truth was inmates here didn’t have to kill themselves; they were routinely beaten and attacked by deputies, with some of those men dying as a result.
The ACLU of Southern California finally heard the pleas of people who either served time or had friends or loved ones who were beaten, tortured or killed by vicious and largely unregulated guards. The abominable management of the jails and the sadistic treatment of the inmates were themselves criminal, and a report prepared by the civil rights organization finally exposed what was really happening behind bars. That information was then forwarded to the county Board of Supervisors, which assembled a blue ribbon panel consisting of retired federal judges, law enforcement officials and community activists to investigate further.
In the end, Baca and members of the Sheriff’s Department’s top brass were charged with federal crimes and prosecuted for their misdeeds.
Kelly Davis is a freelance reporter who formerly served as deputy editor of one of our sister papers, San Diego CityBeat. A few years back she left the paper and became a freelancer for such publications as the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Voice of San Diego website. It was for the daily newspaper that she penned a story on a US Marine who was arrested for domestic violence and then killed himself while in the sheriff’s lockup in Vista.
While at CityBeat, Kelly won awards for stories she wrote on in-custody deaths in county jails. In 2013, Kelly and Dave Maass reported that 60 people from 2007 to 2012 died. “Of the 60 deaths, 31 were classified as natural, which is consistent with national ratios for jail deaths. The other 48 percent were classified as suicides, homicides and accidents. Of the 16 suicides, most inmates hanged themselves,” they wrote.
In this case, Kelly interviewed a jail inmate who was there when the Marine was in custody in March 2014. He overheard a guard mention to the Marine that he should not be fashioning a noose while in his cell, but took no action, such as removing the noose and putting the man on suicide watch.
Problems for Kelly began after a judge deciding a lawsuit filed by the Marine’s widow allowed the case to go to trial based on her story appearing in the U-T.
But rather than settle the case out of court, attorneys for the county attacked Kelly, serving her with a subpoena. Last month the federal judge on the civil case quashed that order. But just think of it: Rather than going after the people who have allowed this to happen, namely the sheriff and his guards, the county instead attacked the messenger.
Kelly’s rock-solid reporting for CityBeat and the U-T has never been challenged, but apparently nor has it been heeded by the Sheriff’s Department, and the county has settled other similar lawsuits as in-custody deaths continued to pile up.
Why has there been no formal federal investigation of what appears to be a depraved indifference to human life on the part of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department?
The county’s actions, according to a statement issued by the San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalist, “represents a failure of transparency and a misguided attack on a journalist instead of an attack on the very real and important problems she uncovered.”
In a somewhat unusual interview with the U-T, Kelly, who was represented by local attorneys working pro bono, said her case involving the dead Marine illustrates the need for a national shield law for journalists.
“Most states — including California — have shield laws to protect reporters from being forced to testify in court or hand over source information. Since this is a federal civil rights case, California’s shield law didn’t protect me. Congress needs to pass a federal shield law,” Kelly told fellow reporter Abby Hamblin.
In the case of LA County, ex-Sheriff Baca, his top lieutenants and a number of other officials all went to prison. Perhaps that’s what San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore needs, so he might see firsthand what has led to more than 120 lives lost while in the custody in his jails since 2007.