Jury awards $10K to disbarred lawyer who went pro se in civil rights trial over L.A. jail abuses
A disastrous few days in court appears to have been rectified by the facts behind the legal claims, which a federal appellate panel said in 2021 were meritorious.
A federal jury has awarded a disbarred lawyer $10,000 for abuses she suffered while jailed in Los Angeles County nearly 12 years ago.
Lecia Shorter represented herself in the five-day trial, at one point declaring she would no longer go forward, only to recant and give a closing argument anyway.
The verdict delivered Monday night includes $2,000 in punitive damages against retired Sheriff Leroy Baca. It follows two previous trials and two visits to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which made clear that at least two of Shorter’s claims regarding her 2011 jailing were valid.
Shorter for several years had lawyers with major law firms representing her pro bono. But she pursued her third trial pro se — including direct-examining herself — and a recent filing details a disastrous few days in court that would be almost funny were the case not so serious.
“Another male juror was angry because the court ordered the parties to return at 1:30 p.m. and I did not get there until 1:35 p.m. During voir dire, the juror told me that he did not appreciate me walking in late because I was not respecting their time. I told him he did not know the reason I was late. He replied, ‘and you don’t know what I had to give up to be here.’ He too had a very angry disposition. Fortunately, I was able to exercise a preemption to excuse him.”
Jailed in 2011 at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, Shorter was chained nearly naked to her cell door for several hours on several occasions and subjected to body searches that the 9th Circuit described as “a humiliating and extreme invasion of Shorter’s privacy.” She also was regularly chained to a table during her designated recreation time as part of a practice for inmates classified as mentally ill, and jail records show she received only three showers in 32 days. The county’s lawyer, Rina Mathevosian, told the 9th Circuit panel in September 2021 that records don’t properly reflect how many times Shorter was offered showers but declined them.
“But there’s no evidence in the record that she refused showers. None,” said 9th Circuit Kim McLane Wardlaw, who was joined by Ronald M. Gould and visiting U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers of the Northern District of California.
Wardlaw authored the first opinion in 2018 that said the original trial judge, then-U.S. Magistrate Judge Jay Gandhi, errored by instructing the jury to “give deference to jail officials” regarding their policies and practices.
“A deference instruction was not warranted on these facts. Jail officials have a duty to ensure that detainees are provided adequate shelter, food, clothing, sanitation, medical care, and personal safety,” according to the opinion, citing the 2000 9th Circuit Johnson v. Lewis ruling. “And, we have confirmed, time and time again, that the Constitution requires jail officials to provide outdoor recreation opportunities, or otherwise meaningful recreation, to prison inmates.”
After Shorter lost her second trial, Wardlaw, Gould and Rogers said the new judge, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter, should have granted judgment in Shorter’s favor regarding her lack of exercise claim, just as he’d granted judgment in her favor for her inadequate sanitation claim.
The opinion said lawyers for Los Angeles County “failed to provide any penological justification for leaving inmates unclothed and chained for any period of time after their clothes had already been searched, thus violating the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.”
Shorter has been represented by pro bono counsel, including a team from Steptoe and Johnson LLP that handled her first appeal in 2017. But she represented herself in the second trial and argued her own appeal the second time, with Horvitz & Levy associate Christopher Hu serving as amicus counsel. Shorter also handled all her pre-trial litigation for the third trial, including unsuccessfully trying to persuade Carter to allow her to call Baca as a witness. She wanted to call other witnesses to testify about the deputy gangs that exists in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, including Cerise Castle, a journalist who wrote an investigative series about deputy gangs for knock-la.com.
Still, Shorter managed to keep at least some of her courtroom focus on the deputy gangs issue. Her weekend filing details a bizarre incident in which she said an alternate juror photographed her laptop while she was reading an article about deputy gangs.
“The alternate juror appeared very angry. He told the court that I had the article on my laptop intentionally and for the sole purpose of allowing the jury to view the article because I put the article up after Defendants Avalos and Ortiz said they have no tattoos and are not members of a deputy gang. He also said that he turned around to see if other jurors were looking. He told the court that he took a photograph of my laptop. Judge Carter asked the alternate juror whether he could continue with the trial and be unbiased and impartial and he said he could. However, the alternate juror, a Caucasian man, was very angry and resentful toward me and it was obvious he was already prejudiced, if not from the very beginning of trial. Judge Carter told the alternate juror that he had done nothing wrong and thanked him for serving. However, it is illegal to take photographs or make a recording of a federal proceeding and Judge Carter did not admonish the juror.”
Shorter’s background sets her apart from most pro se litigants: She earned her law license with the California State Bar in 1988, holding it for five years before a suspension in 1993 and disbarment in 1996. Detailed State Bar court records for Shorter couldn’t be accessed online, but Metropolitan News-Enterprise reported in 2018 that she was disbarred for stealing $7,000 in client money.
Carter appears to have truly gone out of his way to ensure Shorter’s Los Angeles-centric case had a fair chance with a jury: He temporarily moved his chambers to the First Street U.S. Courthouse in downtown L.A. for trial instead of putting the case before a jury in his home base of the Ronald Reagan Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse in Santa Ana.
Still, Shorter, who is Black, complained that the jury pool “did not have one Black American as a potential juror.”
“Not having a Black American on the jury means there is no member of my community who understands the unique experiences of the Black community and racial discrimination we experience by deputy sheriffs within the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. An objection was made to the Court, but it was overruled,” Shorter wrote in the March 12 filing titled “irregularities in trial proceedings, juror misconduct, witness intimidation and nonverbal communication between defense counsel and juror no. 10.”
Shorter said she would no longer participate in the proceedings, but she ended up giving her closing argument on Monday after jurors heard more testimony, according to the court minutes.
Jurors deliberated until 8:15 p.m. before awarding $3,000 for inadequate sanitation and lack of recreation, $5,000 for excessive searches and $2,000 in punitive damages against Baca.
Because of the previous findings regarding liability, damages were the only thing for the jury to consider.
Jurors declined to issue punitive damages against Deputy Jacqueline Ortiz and Deputy Alejandra Avalos for the recreation and sanitation claims, and they declined punitive damages against Ortiz, Avalos and Baca for the excessive searches.
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