Two deputy sheriffs beat and pepper-sprayed a mentally ill county jail inmate without provocation and then lied in reports to conceal the illegal assault, a prosecutor told a federal jury Tuesday, but the defense countered that the lawmen were only doing their job and never lied about any aspect of the incident.
Bryan Brunsting and Jason “Johnson” Branum are charged with federal civil rights violations and making false statements about the March 22, 2010, encounter at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
It is the latest in a string of trials in Los Angeles federal court stemming from the FBI’s multi-year investigation into brutality and other misconduct in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
In her opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson said the alleged beating of pretrial detainee Philip Jones in a hidden hallway that lacked surveillance cameras was designed to both punish the inmate for swearing at a custody assistant 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,” 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 could have been used to refer the inmate for criminal prosecution, the federal prosecutor alleged.
Richard Hirsch, Brunsting’s attorney, gave jurors a different story.
Jones, he said, was wandering around an area of the jail he was not authorized to be in and was ordered by custody assistant Porscha Singh to return to his “module.”
“It was a dangerous situation,” Hirsch told the nine-woman, five-man panel.
When Brunsting and other jail guards responded, Jones became “assaultive” and it became “necessary to use force,” the attorney said, telling the jury that the only injury suffered by the inmate was eye irritation from the pepper spray.
Hirsch said the prosecution evidence would be “insufficient” to prove any illegal force was used or that the reports were falsified. In addition, he said, witnesses Singh and trainee deputy Joshua Sather had given previous testimony to grand juries in the case that could not be believed.
“I cannot count on my fingers the number of conflicting inconsistent stories they have told,” he told the jury.
In his statement, Donald M. Re, Branum’s lawyer, said much the same thing.
The two primary prosecution witnesses — Porscha and Sather — “tell two different stories about every important fact in the case,” Re said.
“You cannot believe or rely” on either witness, he said.
The lawmen each face three federal counts — conspiracy against rights, deprivation of rights under color of law and falsification of records. The charges potentially carry multiple-year federal prison terms.
Brunsting, who was a training officer at the time, is charged separately in connection with a second incident in which a different Twin Towers inmate allegedly was assaulted and suffered bodily injury in August 2009.
The deputy will be tried on those allegations following the current trial before U.S. District Judge George Wu, which is expected to last less than a week at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse
On Monday, two sheriff’s deputies were sentenced to federal prison terms of more than a year each for falsifying reports documenting the beating of a handcuffed, mentally ill jail inmate at a county lockup.
The lawmen were among 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 sheriff’s department.
The probe reached the sheriff’s department’s highest offices. Ex-Sheriff Lee Baca pleaded guilty in February to a charge of lying to investigators and is awaiting a hearing in which a federal judge will consider signing off on a plea deal that would result in a prison sentence of no more than six months.
Baca’s former second-in-command, Paul Tanaka, was convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice and obstruction of justice. The former undersheriff’s sentencing is set for June 20.
—City News Service
>> Want to read more stories like this? Get our Free Daily Newsletters Here!Follow us: