Closing arguments begin in trial of Santa Clara County jail guards accused of beating inmate to death

SAN JOSE (BCN) — A prosecutor seeking to convict three Santa Clara County correctional deputies for the beating death of a mentally ill inmate at San Jose’s Main Jail in 2015 began his closing argument Tuesday morning, two months after the trial began.

Jereh Lubrin, 30, and Rafael Rodriguez and Matthew Farris, both 28, could face life in prison if convicted of murder for the beating of bipolar 31-year-old Michael Tyree on Aug. 26, 2015, the night before he was
found dead in his cell with his spleen ruptured nearly in two.

The three are also charged with the assault under color of authority of 48-year-old Juan Villa, a second mentally ill inmate, the same night.

Villa, who suffers from schizophrenia and manic episodes, testified about the assault last month as well as about a prior assault on July 25, 2015, in which Lubrin is also charged.

The defense has claimed that Tyree’s death was not a homicide, suggesting that he died by suicide by jumping onto the corner of the sink in his cell, rupturing his organs.

“Power and the abuse of power: that is what this case is about and that is why this happened,” prosecutor Matt Braker began, echoing the opening statement he gave on March 21.

“These three defendants, they thrived on the power they had as guards over the inmates,” Braker said.

The defendants are said to have targeted mentally ill inmates, known in jail as J-cats, an allegation supported by text messages shown to the jury earlier in the trial in which some of the deputies bragged about the assaults.

At 8:36 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2015, the morning Tyree’s vomit- and feces-covered body was removed from his cell, Rodriguez’s Google search history shows search queries of “can you die from punches to you,” “can you die if someone punches you in the armpit” and “can you die if someone punches you in the rib.”

According to witness testimony, the assault on Tyree began after he mouthed off to a nurse during “pill call,” when medication is distributed to inmates.

“They treated Michael Tyree with complete contempt and disdain. But in this courtroom, in here, he is entitled to all of the same respect and dignity as any victim,” Braker said.

Braker went over the testimony given by 11 current and former inmates who said they heard Tyree and Villa “begging and screaming” or the dull thud of Tyree’s body.

Some said they saw all three deputies in Tyree’s cell and that one of the deputies turned off the cell light when they left, which would have been unusual.

One witness, Joshua Mauricio, testified that he had heard Lubrin say, “I don’t want to hear a word from you” when he left Tyree’s cell.

The defense has attacked the inmates’ testimony as inconsistent and accused some of them of being “professional witnesses” who believe their testimony could be rewarded with legal or immigration-related benefits, a claim that prosecutors have refuted.

“Of course there are discrepancies,” Braker said. “Just because there’s a discrepancy between two people’s testimony doesn’t mean it should be thrown out.”

Jurors have heard recorded calls inmates made from the jail phone the morning after Tyree’s death, telling alarmed girlfriends and mothers that the deputies had beaten an inmate to death.

Braker is set to continue his closing argument at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.

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