LOS ANGELES – Federal prosecutors have agreed to dismiss a pending excessive force charge against two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in the beating of a handcuffed inmate as part of a deal that calls for them to be sentenced to prison terms between 21 and 27 months for filing false reports.
In a split verdict last Tuesday, Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez were found guilty of falsifying records documenting the 2009 beating of Bret Phillips of Lancaster, but jurors deadlocked on whether the deputies used excessive force. The jury acquitted the deputies of conspiring to violate the inmate’s civil rights.
Two days later, federal prosecutors filed notice that they planned to retry Aguiar and Ramirez on the pending charge of deprivation of rights under color of law, which carries a maximum possible sentence of 10 years in prison.
According to a “package deal” filing, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the pending civil rights count and will not appeal a sentence for the lawmen unless it is less than 21 months on the false records convictions.
In exchange, the deputies waived their possible appeal of the guilty verdicts and any prison sentence under 27 months.
However, sentencing decisions are up to the judge, and federal falsification of records counts carry a possible prison term of up to 20 years.
U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell will hold a hearing to approve the agreement, which takes the possibility of a retrial off the table and closes out all post-trial issues except for sentencing.
Aguiar and Ramirez were charged in a four-count indictment with kicking handcuffed then-inmate Bret Phillips in the head and upper body, striking him with a flashlight, pepper-spraying him in the face and then hiding their actions in reports that could have been used to prosecute the inmate for assault.
The Feb. 11, 2009, encounter at the Men’s Central Jail was allegedly witnessed by a jail chaplain and an inmate, both of whom testified during the trial in downtown Los Angeles.
Prosecutors argued that the lawmen set upon Phillips in a gang-style beat-down as retribution for showing disrespect earlier in the day. Defense lawyers countered that Phillips was combative and threatening, and the deputies did only what was legally required to gain control of an unruly inmate.
“What they did was beat a man and they used their badge to do it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Williams told jurors.
But jurors could not agree if the defendants used excessive force in the encounter, with 10 panelists voting to convict on that count.
Defense attorney Evan Jenness argued that as Phillips was brought down the row of cells, his hands cuffed to a waist chain, Phillips swore at Aguiar — then a 21-year-old rookie — refused to follow orders and attempted to head-butt the officer.
“Restrained punches” were used only to “gain control of a recalcitrant inmate in trying to get him back to his cell,” she said.
The force, Jenness said, was “appropriate” and “proportionate” to Phillips’ behavior.
Jurors said after the trial that the severity of injuries suffered by Phillips was an issue during their deliberations and resulted in the deadlock on the civil rights charge.
Defense attorneys described Phillips’ injuries as not more than scratch on his forehead, which disproved the government’s argument that excessive force was used.
The prosecution maintained that Phillips suffered a head wound, blunt force trauma to the legs and elbow, and back and spinal cord injuries.
“These deputies used restraint,” defense attorney Vicki Podberesky told the jury. “If they wanted to use great force, they could have.”
Aguiar and Ramirez were the latest of 21 current and former sheriff’s officials to be tried by federal authorities in connection with the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Aguiar and Ramirez are on unpaid leave from the department pending resolution of the case.
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