A brutal South Bay jailhouse attack that lasted nearly six minutes and took place in front of a guard station and at least one security camera is raising new questions about jail oversight in Santa Clara County.
Prosecutors say the attack, carried out last November by 31 alleged gang members who punched, kicked and stomped the victim until he was naked and bloody, was in retaliation for the victim’s cooperation with police in a criminal investigation into another gang member.
Although the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office has not publicly released the surveillance video, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit independently obtained a copy of the video showing the assault in its entirety.
The disturbing video is hard to watch, and shows the attackers pummeling the victim from one end of the dormitory-style housing unit to the other until he’s left naked and bloody directly in front of a guard station in the housing unit. At one point, an assailant pours what prosecutors say is cleaning solution on the victim’s battered face.
While the brutal nature of the attack is concerning, the slow response from jail staff raises questions about how an attack involving dozens of people, carried out in front of a guard station and security camera, could go on for so long.
“I was outraged, I was concerned, I had a lot of questions,” Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen said of his reaction to watching the surveillance video. “How did this happen? How do you have 31 inmates beating up another inmate for more than five minutes?”
His office charged all 31 of the alleged attackers with felony assault and active participation in a criminal street gang. Nineteen of them were charged with witness intimidation and five are charged with retaliation against a witness.
But Rosen said his office wants to get to the bottom of how the assault could happen.
“We are committed to finding out what happened, why it happened, how it happened and what can be done so that a beating like this doesn’t take place in the jail again,” Rosen said.
Before the attack begins, the dormitory area appears calm, with inmates milling around the communal tables situated near the guard station or hanging out by the bunk beds in back.
Then a commotion breaks out towards the back of the dorm, where the video shows a group unleashing a barrage of punches and kicks, though it’s hard to see where they’re directed.
About a minute later, the victim is dragged to the front of the dorm, where, surrounded by a group of attackers, he’s beaten repeatedly and left bloody and naked on the floor.
The attack continues for several more minutes directly in front of the guard station, but no deputies respond until the attack is over.
Despite the brutal assault, which left the victim with broken bones, according to prosecutors, the video shows he’s able to put on some clothing and walk out of the dorm with deputies.
The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office declined an on-camera interview request from NBC Bay Area to discuss why no deputies intervened and whether it was dangerous to place a police informant in the way of potential harm.
In an emailed statement, the sheriff’s office said, in part:
“[Jail staff] assigned to these posts are often responsible for multi-tasking and conducting other non-supervision duties, which typically occur out of eyesight of those incarcerated…”
“What good are cameras in a jail if no one is monitoring them?” said retired superior court judge LaDoris Cordell, who also served as the Independent Police Auditor for the City of San Jose.
This isn’t the first time Cordell has responded to problems inside Santa Clara County jails. Back in 2015, Cordell was appointed chair of the Blue-Ribbon Commission tasked with evaluating violence and oversight behind jail walls in the wake of the beating death of inmate Michael Tyree at the hands of three deputies. All three deputies were later convicted of 2nd degree murder.
“It should be a total embarrassment to the sheriff and those who are operating the jails to have the guard post just completely empty,” Cordell said. “I'm really stunned that [the victim] wasn’t killed.”
Cordell champions independent oversight at the jail, and she’s not alone.
“If there was outside oversight, then these issues may have been flagged or addressed or minimized, or absolutely avoided 100%,” said Sylvia Perez-MacDonald, Director of the Santa Clara County Independent Defense Counsel Office, which appointed attorneys for most of the 31 accused attackers.
She says this is yet another incident showing the sheriff’s office can’t police itself.
“I don’t think that anybody believes that self-monitoring or internal oversight has been effective,” Perez-MacDonald said. “So, the absence of any effective intervention at this point from an outside group is my primary concern.”