LOS ANGELES – Two former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who beat and pepper-sprayed a mentally ill county jail inmate without provocation and then lied about it were sentenced Monday to federal prison.
Bryan Brunsting was sentenced to a year and nine months in prison, while Jason “Johnson” Branum was given five months behind bars. Both will have to serve two years on supervised release following their prison time, and were allowed to remain free pending their appeals.
Brunsting and Branum were convicted in May of three federal counts — conspiracy against rights, deprivation of rights under color of law and falsification of records — in connection with the assault six years ago at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility. Jurors reached the verdict after about 90 minutes of deliberation.
U.S. District Judge George Wu imposed far more lenient sentences than those recommended by government prosecutors, who argued that longer prison terms would deter other law enforcement officials from engaging in the same type of offenses.
Wu disagreed, questioning whether the length of incarceration in such cases is quite as significant as prosecutors made out.
The case was one of several trials in Los Angeles federal court stemming from the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the sheriff’s department.
Wu said the defendants’ crimes “stemmed from an us-versus-them mentality.”
Prosecutors said the beating of pretrial detainee Philip Jones in a surveillance-free hallway at Twin Towers on March 22, 2010, was designed to both punish the inmate for “disrespecting” a jail employee and to teach a rookie officer — whom Brunsting was training — a lesson about how the jail really worked.
“They kicked him, struck him, sprayed him with OC (pepper) spray,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson told jurors, adding that Jones, who suffers from schizophrenia and hears voices, “wasn’t kicking, punching, swinging” or in any way fighting back.
The deputies then concocted a phony story that Jones was combative in order to explain the assault in a report that could have been used to refer the inmate for criminal prosecution.
Defense attorney Richard Hirsch countered that the inmate truly had become dangerous and a legal amount of force was necessary to control him. He told the jury that the only injury suffered by Jones was eye irritation from the pepper spray.
Neither defendant, nor Jones, took the stand during the weeklong trial. However, the prosecution had a key witness in ex-deputy trainee Joshua Sather.
Sather, who quit the department immediately following the Jones assault after a crisis of conscience, testified that Brunsting and Branum beat Jones until he was “screaming and crying” and then fabricated reports to cover up the assault.
Sather also told the downtown jury that he saw Brunsting “spread (the victim’s) legs and kick the inmate in his private parts.”
Brunsting, now 32, was Sather’s training officer at the county lockup on a floor housing mentally ill and suicidal inmates.
At one point, Sather testified, Brunsting told him that Jones had disobeyed an order and deputies would now teach the prisoner “a lesson.”
Brunsting’s attorney said the case called attention to the problem of housing the mentally ill in jail facilities and the lack of training for officers who must deal with them.
Hirsch said his client was a “young, immature deputy” thrust into an unpredictable, “very scary” situation with an aggressive, possibly homicidal pretrial detainee.
Brunsting and Branum were among more than a dozen sheriff’s officials to be tried by federal authorities in the jails investigation.
Branum, 36, had previously served in the U.S. Army in Bosnia, Iraq and Kuwait, winning the Bronze Star for bravery.
“I don’t recall ever having a criminal defendant before me who has won a Bronze Star,” the judge said before imposing the five-month term.
Both ex-officers made pre-sentencing statements to the court. Brunsting told Wu that he continues to take pride in his character and work ethic. Branum said he had “spent the majority of my life protecting people who could not protect themselves.”
The federal jails probe reached the department’s highest offices. Ex- Sheriff Lee Baca faces trial on corruption charges next month while his former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was convicted of obstruction of justice charges and is appealing his five-year sentence.