A former federal corrections officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman in COVID-19 isolation and then lying to federal investigators about the assault.
U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II sentenced Jose Viera, 49, to a maximum sentence in the Central District of California Monday for raping an inmate in December 2020, when he was serving as a corrections officer at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles (MDC-LA).
Viera pleaded guilty to a felony count of deprivation of rights under color of law in May 2022.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said the U.S. Bureau of Prisons officer "caused incalculable pain" on the victim and "must be held accountable."
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"Law enforcement officials must be held accountable when they abuse their authority and exploit their power to sexually assault the very people they are sworn to protect," Clarke said in a statement. "This defendant’s actions destroyed this woman’s sense of peace, caused incalculable pain, and shattered her trust in law enforcement."
According to court documents, Viera was tasked with caring for a woman who was quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure. He was allowed to enter her cell to give her breakfast, as he did on several occasions before the incident, the Department of Justice said.
The inmate, identified as J.P., wrote in a victim's statement that on Dec. 20, Viera entered the cell, instructed her to face the wall then forcibly raped her on the bed.
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According to the statement, she found his semen on the sheets, which was later used as evidence.
"Had I not had that evidence, I wouldn't have wasted my time reporting anything, because I would have known it would be his word against mine, and [Viera] was a sworn-in correction officer at the time, and I was just a criminally convicted felon," she wrote to the judge, as the Los Angeles Times reported. "They would have taken his word over mine, for sure."
She described the incident as "torture" and said Viera "violated and humiliated" her in the "worst way possible," per the report.
The DOJ said Viera later lied to federal agents when the Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General (DOJ-OIG), and the FBI conducted a voluntary interview.
Special Agent in Charge Zachary Shroyer for the DOJ-OIG, Los Angeles Field Office added: "Viera abused his power and sexually assaulted the inmate in her cell while she was extremely vulnerable in COVID-19 isolation."
BOP corrections officers are required by law to uphold the U.S. Constitution and ensure the safety and security of people at the MDC-LA.
Clarke added: "We hope this sentence stands as a reminder to would-be offenders that the Justice Department is committed to holding officials accountable when they sexually assault people held inside jails and prisons."
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Viera was placed on administrative leave in March 2022, two years after the incident.
U.S. Attorney Martin Estrada for the Central District of California similarly said Viera’s actions damage the reputation of law enforcement as a whole.
"By breaching his duty of trust, Viera harmed not only the victim but also the system of justice he was entrusted to serve," Estrada said. "My office will continue in its mission to ensure that no one is above the law, regardless of their position, and that victims receive justice."
Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division also highlighted Viera’s abuse of power.
"Law enforcement officers are charged with upholding civil rights. The defendant in this case completely abused his position of power," Quesada said. "The FBI is dedicated to protecting the American people and pursuing justice on behalf of victims in cases like this."
The DOJ-OIG Los Angeles Field Office and the FBI Los Angeles Field Office assisted in investigating the case.