Kourtney, a fourteen-year-old inmate at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, didn’t want to go to bed. It was after 9 p.m. on July 1, 2018, and she was refusing orders from the detention service officers, or DSOs, to return to her room. Instead, Kourtney barricaded herself in a bathroom stall. After multiple warnings, supervisor LaCour Harrison ordered his subordinate, Karnesha Marshall, to use her pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or OC spray. Marshall sprayed Kourtney in the face, and the DSOs carried her back to her room as she screamed in pain. Once she was inside, it appears the officers turned off the water to the room, forcing Kourtney to use her toilet’s standing water to wash the spray out of her eyes.

Over a year later, the disturbing events of July 1 play out in security camera footage during the trial of Marshall and Harrison, who are charged with child endangerment. Judge Bennett Miller II, a big man with thick black glasses, presides as Kourtney, referred to only by her first name in court records because of her age, enters the courtroom accompanied by two probation officers. She wears wrist and ankle shackles over her orange jumpsuit. Now fifteen, a shy smile plays around her mouth as she hunches, turning in the witness stand’s swivel chair, and chewing on her fingernails.

“Are you nervous?” prosecutor Kaveh Faturechi asks. “A little,” Kourtney answers, so quietly that the judge asks her to move the stand’s microphone closer. Faturechi has a shaved head and a friendly smile. During his opening statement, he talks about his love of Spider-Man to remind the jury of their great power and responsibility in deciding the verdict.

Tall and silver-haired, James Huddleston, an investigator for the L.A. County Probation Department’s Internal Affairs Division, sits beside Faturechi at the prosecution’s table. His January 2019 investigation of the incident and interviews with Kourtney and the officers involved form the basis for much of Faturechi’s case against Harrison and Marshall.

Harrison’s attorney, Tom Yu, a former deputy sheriff who keeps his hair cropped to the scalp, reminds the jury in his opening statement that the youths housed at Los Padrinos are serious offenders. “They’re not there for truancy,” he says. When dealing with hostile youths who could be a threat to staff or themselves, DSOs are trained to employ de-escalation tactics starting with verbal commands, physical intervention, and, at the time of the Kourtney incident, OC warnings and ultimately OC spray itself. Yu argues that DSOs must use force in order to “maintain the program” and prevent a domino effect of misbehavior.

Prosecutor Faturechi plays the first video clip, which shows Kourtney poking her head into the staff office and grabbing a cleaning spray bottle and walkie talkie. DSO Sarah Cota testifies she took the walkie talkie and spray bottle away from Kourtney in case she tried using them as weapons. The security camera footage doesn’t have audio, but later Cota tells Faturechi during cross-examination that she and other officers repeatedly warned Kourtney to return to her room.

The next camera angle shows Kourtney backing into the hallway junction outside the supervisor’s office. She picks up a chair and holds it towards Harrison, the supervising officer, as well as DSOs Marshall, Cota, and Araxi Vargas as they follow her. Cota’s PIR, or physical intervention report, from the evening says that Kourtney was yelling “I like PIRs, they’re fun!” and “I hope you all break your necks and die!” She sets the chair down and runs to the bathroom, where there are no security cameras, to barricade herself in a stall.

Given that the stall doors open inwards, Cota says the DSOs had some difficulty entering to restrain Kourtney, but ultimately managed to get in. Both Cota and Marshall gave OC warnings before Harrison gave the order to spray. Cota remembers Kourtney lifting her shirt up to expose herself to Harrison in an act of further defiance, but Vargas recalls that Kourtney was using the shirt to shield herself from Marshall’s OC spray. Cota states that “the first burst didn’t hit the minor directly,” so Marshall sprayed Kourtney a second time to subdue her enough for the DSOs to escort her back to her room.

Video footage resumes in the hallway outside Kourtney’s room, and from a camera inside the cell-like room itself. The DSOs push Kourtney inside and shut the door. Marshall then enters a water closet next door to Kourtney’s room. In her interview with Huddleston, Cota says she “believes” she heard Harrison order Marshall to shut off the water to the room. Youths in facilities like Los Padrinos sometimes flood their rooms as an act of defiance by blocking the toilet and flushing repeatedly, causing it to overflow. Besides being unsanitary, the water can spread to other rooms and create a risk of slipping, potentially forcing DSOs to remove multiple youths from their rooms at once. Such a situation might rapidly spiral out of control – the type of domino effect that Yu referenced.

When Yu asks Kourtney if she has ever flooded her room, she says no, just “once, when I was upset.” Yu reminds her that in her January interview with Huddleston, she stated, “I flooded my room plenty of times cause I just be bored,” and Kourtney agrees that she has done it “maybe a few times.” Yu argues that if the DSOs shut off the water, surely it was with an awareness of her history of flooding in mind.

However, DSO Vargas testifies, both in her January interview with Huddleston and on the witness stand, that the water in Kourtney’s room was already off when the DSOs escorted her there because “another minor had been flooding.” According to Vargas, Harrison ordered Marshall to turn the water back on, not off. 

Meanwhile, the camera inside the room shows Kourtney heading to her sink. It’s not clear if any water comes out, but she moves to the room’s toilet moments later and kneels to splash its water on her face. “I thought it was gross,” Kourtney says, but she states the sink wasn’t working, leaving her with no other options.

In the video, Kourtney rises to address the officers through the door, hopping in pain. Vargas recalls her screaming, “I’m fucking burning!” and asking the DSOs outside to take her to the showers for decontamination. Harrison tells her to “stop being hostile” and sit on her bed until she’s calm enough for them to enter. He exits with Marshall and Cota, leaving Vargas to supervise Kourtney through the diagonal window pane in the door.

Kourtney sits on her bed, fanning herself with her shirt and hands. Over the course of the next several minutes, she makes repeated trips back to the toilet for more water, even kneeling to put her face in the bowl directly. Vargas testifies that she has no memory of seeing Kourtney using toilet water to decontaminate herself, and that she would have informed someone if she had. According to her interview with Huddleston, though, Vargas told Kourtney not to use the toilet and said she would turn the room’s water on. 

After approximately five minutes, Cota brings Kourtney a wet towel and then enters the water closet, presumably to turn the room’s water back on. Kourtney wets the towel further in the sink, but says the flow of water wasn’t enough and dips the towel in the toilet. Ultimately, the DSOs escort Kourtney to the showers for full decontamination. Huddleston testifies that proper decontamination requires “copious amounts” of cool, running water. During questioning by Marshall’s defense attorney, Jessica Rico, Huddleston acknowledges that Probation policy doesn’t explicitly state that a wet towel cannot be used for decontamination, but he says it would only rub the spray into the skin and exacerbate the effects. 

Nearly three weeks into the trial, new evidence is uncovered: additional DSO interviews conducted in August 2019 by another internal affairs investigator. Given that neither the prosecution nor defense was previously aware of these interviews, both need time to examine them. Depending on its contents, they might have to recall witnesses already excused by the court.

The defense attorneys agree that they have no choice but to file for a mistrial and argue that the jury, already understandably frustrated by the lengthy proceedings, will be unable to fairly pass judgement. Faturechi doesn’t object, and Judge Bennett grants the mistrial. He’s characteristically measured but forceful as he dismisses the jury, acknowledging the frustration that must come from the lack of a satisfying conclusion after their long service.

In the hallway outside the courtroom, both the jurors and attorneys seem to enjoy the opportunity to speak freely about the events at Los Padrinos. Yu and Rico reveal that internal oversight committees approved Harrison and Marshall’s actions, a detail Judge Bennett ruled would be prejudicial and was kept out of the trial. The attorneys suggest that the case only made it to trial so long after the incident itself took place due to political reasons and the Board of Supervisors looking to make an example of officers to support their new policy on OC spray.

In February 2019, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban the use of pepper spray by the end of the year in juvenile facilities like Los Padrinos, which is now closed. The vote came shortly after the county’s Office of Inspector General published a report on the use of OC spray that referenced cases of possible officer misconduct during instances like the one with Kourtney. 

Tellingly, the report recommends updating the use-of-force policy to “explicitly prohibit the following practices: confining a youth to a room without running water within thirty minutes of an OC spray application, turning off water to a room occupied by a youth who was the subject of OC spray, and providing a wet towel to youth who are attempting to decontaminate, and allowing those youth to rub their face.” Perhaps it’s no surprise that a second OIG report published in September 2019 states that, “Generally speaking, youth were pleased and more optimistic than staff when discussing the elimination of OC spray.”

The Supervisor’s office declined to comment on Kourtney’s trial and responded to an interview request with the following general statement: “Other jurisdictions around the country have eliminated pepper spray from their juvenile facilities without jeopardizing the safety of staff. LA County intends to do the same thing, but best practices make clear that eliminating pepper spray should be done by gradually implementing a comprehensive phase-out plan. LA County’s plan is currently in development.”

Maybe the defense attorneys are right. Maybe Harrison and Marshall were acting lawfully, in full compliance with policy, with their own safety as well as Kourtney’s in mind. But even if that is the case, it doesn’t make it any easier to watch a fourteen year-old-girl screaming in pain as she buries her face in a toilet. Of course, it will be up to the next jury to decide. A pre-trial hearing has been set for December 10th. 

References:

County of Los Angeles Office of Inspector General Report Back on Ensuring Safety and Humane Treatment in the County’s Juvenile Justice Facilities, 4 Feb. 2019.

County of Los Angeles Office of Inspector General Report Back on Ensuring Safety and Humane Treatment in the County’s Juvenile Justice Facilities, 20 Sep. 2019.

Stiles, Matt. “L.A. Supervisors Ban Pepper Spray in Juvenile Detention Halls after Reports of Abuse.” Los Angeles Times, 20 Feb. 2019.