By Robert Faturechi
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
March 27, 2011
A Los Angeles County jail inmate who expressed concerns about his safety was strangled in his cell weeks after a judge asked that sheriff's officials reevaluate the man's custody arrangements, according to court records and interviews.
Sheriff's officials said they had no records showing they had received the judge's request or reassessed Jonathan Najera's housing situation.
The possibility that the judge's request never reached sheriff's officials and the lack of records to clarify what happened represent a potentially dangerous flaw in communication between jail and court officials, inmate advocates say.
Records show the 20-year-old inmate did move to another cell on the same floor a day after the judge's request, but authorities suspect that move was the result of routine jail flow. Whether the move addressed the inmate's complaints of being "hassled" by other inmates is unknown, authorities said.
Homicide detectives have remained tight-lipped about the jailhouse attack earlier this month and have not released the name of Najera's cellmate who allegedly confessed to the killing.
Najera, who was in jail for attempted murder, shared a cell on the third floor of Men's Central Jail with three others. Authorities said they believe he was killed overnight. His body was discovered by deputies when it was apparently dragged out by one of his cellmates during a morning "pill call," in which some inmates receive medications. His killing wasn't detected for hours because deputies doing the rounds thought he was asleep.
At a hearing about a month earlier, Judge Daniel Feldstern and Najera's attorney discussed the inmate's safety concerns. Based on that off-the-record discussion, the judge said in court that Najera had been "somewhat hassled by other inmates in his current custodial setting. So I would just simply ask the Sheriff's [Department] to reexamine his circumstances and consider putting him in a place where he can avoid that kind of contact."
In an interview, attorney Steven Flanagan said his client wouldn't tell him specifically why he felt unsafe. "He didn't want anything on the record," Flanagan said. "You can't go back to county jail with something on a piece of paper that indicates you want to go somewhere else."
Court orders from judges are generally noted in a minute order and communicated to the Sheriff's Department through the bailiff. In Najera's case, it appears the judge's request did not reach the level of a court order.
"If there's a discussion that doesn't amount to an order then it doesn't go anywhere because there hasn't been an order made," said court spokeswoman Mary Hearn. "We don't have a process for addressing recommendations." Court and jail officials could not say how often judges make requests that don't amount to court orders.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said Najera's move to another cell may have addressed Najera's concerns because he didn't complain to sheriff's officials or express fears for his safety when he was sentenced to prison days before his death.
"If we had known something we certainly would have done something," Whitmore said, adding that the sheriff's courts division has opened an inquiry into the handling of the judge's request.
When Najera was first booked in the county jail system in 2009, he was kept away from the two other defendants in his shooting case. The three, members of a small street gang called 2XL, were arrested in connection with a 2008 shooting near a mobile home park in Canyon Country. They were on an evening drive when Najera spotted a rival gang member and pointed him out, prosecutors alleged.
The other passenger in the car jumped out, chased the man down and shot him in the neck -- leaving him near death on a ventilator for three days, authorities said.
Najera pleaded no contest to attempted murder and was sentenced to nine years in state prison.
Communication between the court system and the jails regarding inmate security has been scrutinized before. In 2004, a Men's Central Jail inmate was killed in his cell by a murder suspect he had just testified against. That suspect was supposed to be in a cell by himself and limited in his movement around the jail after an attempted escape, but he was never properly reclassified. As a result, he was able to move around within the jail, making it to the other man's cell and attacking him, authorities said.
Both men had also been designated as "keep aways," which in sheriff's jargon meant they were to be kept on separate floors, and not necessarily in solitary confinement or any other type of enhanced security setup. However, it became clear after the incident that the attorneys and the judge on the case had conflicting understandings of the "keep away" designation, according to a civilian watchdog report.
Peter J. Eliasberg, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, called the communication between the court, prosecutors and jail officials in Najera's case "pathetic." A clear protocol is needed to deliver inmate security recommendations from judges to the Sheriff's Department, he said.
"A judge's recommendation is just a lot of hot air if there's no protocol to ensure they're communicating," he said. "It becomes the judge just talking for the sake of talking."
Sheriff's homicide Capt. Dave Smith said that in recorded conversations with his mother in the days before his killing, Najera seemed at ease. "He's acting normal, he's in cell, he's not telling her 'I'm going to get killed' or anything like that."
Antonia Najera, a vocational nurse in Ventura, said she hoped her son would be remembered for more than the shooting that landed him in jail.
"Some people assume because they are criminals, they are the worst, but sometimes they are not what they appear to be," she said. "My son was very charming, very loving. He would say, 'Mom, when I get out I'm going to go to barbering school, and when you get old, you're gonna live in the back of my house. You're my mom, I adore you.' "
"He just made the wrong choice," she said. "He knew he did something wrong and he paid the consequence."