Days after testifying against officer, deputies beat woman

Woman says she went from witness to victim of police violence

By Bob Norman - Investigative Reporter

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The cellphone video of a Fort Lauderdale police officer pushing down a homeless man and then slapping him while the man sat harmlessly on the pavement at the central bus terminal spread around the world like wildfire.

It also led to criminal charges and a highly publicized trial for Officer Victor Ramirez. At the heart of both the video and trial was a 24-year-old woman named Jessica Mooney. She can be seen in the video, which was shot by her boyfriend at the time, later reached out to the victim, Bruce LeClair, and then testified against Ramirez at his trial with the hope that it would help to stop any similar abuse from happening again.

"All I did was try to help somebody," said Mooney. "I testified because I thought it was the right thing to do, because the cop was wrong."

But just eight days after the trial ended with the officer's acquittal in March, it happened to her. She was badly beaten by Broward sheriff’s deputies at the jail after she was arrested by Fort Lauderdale police. The photos of the aftermath show Mooney -- a 5-foot, two-inch, 120-pound woman –- with a grotesquely swollen face, a gash over her eye, and bruising all over her arms, torso and legs.

Her criminal defense attorney, Scott Hecker, says there can be no good explanation for the beating.

"It never should have happened," he said. "You would think that training would prevent deputies from beating a woman like this. You’re in jail, but it’s supposed to be a safe environment .. it’s supposed to be a controlled situation. Here, unfortunately the people in control were out of control."

When interviewed, Mooney could barely bring herself to look at the photos and broke down after seeing them. She says she has lasting physical ailments from the beating, including occasional seizures.

"I never want to see this happen to anyone again," she said, before breaking into tears. "Can we stop?"

The incident occurred after an admittedly intoxicated Mooney was arrested for failing to pay a restaurant and bar bill at the Quarterdeck in Fort Lauderdale. Police arrested her while she was walking home with her five-month-old baby in tow.

"The allegation was that she handed her child to a stranger to hold the child," he said. "Eventually she was arrested for neglect and petty theft for the money that was owed to the restaurant."

The theft charge was later dropped when it was determined she had in fact paid; a misdemeanor neglect charge remains pending. It was later during fingerprinting at the Broward County Jail that the incident occurred.

According to a State Attorney's Office investigation into the incident, deputies allege Mooney had yelled profanities at them. Mooney said a deputy named Amanda Moreno was verbally abusing her. She said she asked for her name and badge number, but couldn’t see it because her hair was covering it.

"With one finger I went like this," she said, brushing her own hair away. "She smashed my face on the finger printing thing."

Three or four more deputies jumped in.

"I don't know if I lost consciousness or if my body went into shock," she said. "I believe I had a footprint on my rib cage. They split open my eyebrow. The whole inside of my mouth had cuts everywhere, just from being brutalized. I was on the floor."

Moreno and other deputies, however, told prosecutors Mooney didn’t simply brush the deputy’s hair but "violently pulled" it, according to close-out memo authored by Assistant State Attorney Ryan Kelley. Mooney’s attorney, Hecker, says he was allowed to see jail surveillance video that captured parts of the incident, and that what he saw contradicts the deputies’ stories.

"You see her hand go up to the front and go up, it's not a fist and it's not a grabbing motion as the deputies say," said Hecker. "It’s moving away."

He said the video then shows Mooney go down and several deputies standing over her, though the actual beating can’t be seen while Mooney is on the floor.

"What you can see in the video is everybody on top of her," he said. "She's underneath these people. You can see arms move."

He said that once Deputy Moreno was extricated, she went right back towards Mooney.

"It appears as though she's about to kick the defendant and as she lifts her leg she falls," Hecker said. "The "deputy falls on her rear end."

The State Attorney’s Office is refusing to release the video, even though it is part of what is now a closed investigation and would normally be a public record. Prosecutors cite a recent legal decision from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office that basically opines that government surveillance video footage isn’t public record because its release could compromise government security systems.

Hecker notes that in this case surveillance video paid for by taxpayers meant to safeguard the public is being withheld in a way that could protect deputies from bad behavior. Conversely the release of the video could vindicate those same deputies in the eyes of the public. Hecker said he intends to get a copy of the video through a court order.

Prosecutor Kelley concluded that the video does not contain sufficient evidence to charge Moreno or any other deputy with a crime. He noted in his report that the video shows Moreno going back at Mooney and falling to the ground, but determined that her intent was "unclear." While Mooney suspects that the beating was retribution for her previous testimony, there has been no evidence found to support that is the case.  

"It never should have happened," said Hecker. "The only people that were violent in this case were the BSO detention deputies."

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