After more than two weeks of deliberation, a jury decided Wednesday that civil rights of four male wards were violated during their incarceration at now-closed Heman G. Stark Youth Correctional Facility in Chino.
Guillermo Ruelas, Oscar Miranda, Alejandro Espinoza and Martin Mendoza had claimed numerous incidents of cruel punishment at the hands of correctional counselor James Shelby during their stint at Stark from 1999 to 2004.
"It was a long fight, and I'm glad justice was served," Ruelas said. "They saw it the way it was. I felt (validated). Even though we have pasts, we deserve justice."
The jury in West Valley Superior Court sided with the wards 12-0 that Shelby forced them to engage in sex in exchange for contraband items and favorable treatment. The jury also held Xavier Ruiz, then superintendent of the facility from 1999 to 2004, and Jerry Harper, director of the California Youth Authority from 2000 to 2003, responsible for imprisoning wards under conditions "that exposed them to a substantial risk of serious harm and/or sexual abuse."
The jury also said that Ruiz and Harper disregarded the risk by "failing to take reasonable measures to correct it."
Ruelas was awarded
The jury in Judge David Williams' courtroom was unanimous in its decision against the state employees, with the only point of dissension being the amount of damages awarded.
"It sends a message that California's prison system can't just sit back and let the abuses occur," said Gary Dordick, an attorney for Ruelas.
"They have to take affirmative action to protect the wards. Prison staff were warned repeatedly that Shelby was a sexual predator, and absolutely nothing was done about it."
Next week, the jury will begin deciding whether to award any punitive damages.
The federal law stipulates that punitive damages can only be up to 10 times the amount already awarded, said Joshua Watson, Mendoza's attorney.
The assets and future earnings of Harper, Ruiz and Shelby will be taken into consideration to determine the amount they can reasonably pay. As they are state employees, the government will likely pay a share of the damages.
Plaintiffs' attorney fees will be added to the judgment.
But immediate payments are very unlikely.
According to Dordick, the defense has promised to appeal the case.
"They were working on an appeal during the trial," Dordick said.
"They told us during the closing arguments that even if the plaintiffs win that they will not see any money in three to five years."
But it was never about the money, Ruelas said.
"We wanted to try to prevent this from happening to someone else," he said. "I'm glad that someone has seen what was going on. Now we can set new things in motion. They need to start screening better anyone who works with juveniles, give them psychological evaluation."
Shelby was not at the court on Wednesday. His attorney, Bradford Child, declined to comment on the verdict. Deputy Attorney General Martin Ageson, who represented Harper and Ruiz, also declined to comment, but did say that his team "did not anticipate this outcome."
The plaintiffs welcomed the jury's decision.
"It was a vindication," Watson said. "Mr. Ruiz deliberately refused to do his job. Ageson even told me `It will be an Armageddon if you win because we will have to change everything."'
"I'm delighted," said Peter Goldstein, Espinoza's attorney. "We were on pins and needles for a very long time. It's about truth coming out after all these years."