Bryan Brunsting, 31, was ordered to spend 21 months in custody and Jason Branum, 35, was given five months, but U.S. District Judge George Wu ordered that they could remain free pending their appeals.
Their case revolved around allegations made by a former recruit who said he was only days on the job at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility on March 10, 2010, when he was summoned by his training officer, Brunsting, and told that an inmate had left his cell without permission and mouthed off to jail staff.
“We’re going to teach him a lesson,” Joshua Sather recalled Brunsting telling him.
Sather, who had graduated from the academy at the top of his class, testified he tackled the inmate and punched him several times but then stopped because he wasn’t resisting. Other deputies then set upon the inmate with a barrage of kicks and blows. The inmate, Sather said, lay curled up on the ground throughout, screaming and crying.
Prosecutors alleged that the inmate, Philip Jones, was attacked in a locked hallway of the jail that lacked surveillance cameras. They told jurors he was kicked in the genitals, punched and pepper-sprayed.
When they were done, Sather testified, the deputies gathered privately to concoct a justification for the beating that they gave sheriff’s officials in falsified reports. Sather resigned from the department soon afterward.
During the trial, attorneys for Brunsting and Branum argued that Sather was an untrustworthy, biased witness, who gave inconsistent accounts of the incident over the years in an attempt to avoid coming into the cross-hairs of prosecutors.
Jurors took only 90 minutes to reject the defense argument. Brunsting and Branum were convicted of conspiracy to violate an inmate’s civil rights, depriving him of his civil rights under color of authority and falsifying records.
In a sentencing memo, federal prosecutors said Brunsting used excessive force during another incident in which he choked out an inmate in August 2009 and then wrote a false report under the name of a deputy he was training.
Brunsting had been expected to face trial on additional civil rights charges in connection with that incident, but prosecutors dropped the charges in exchange for Brunsting agreeing to allow the judge to consider the conduct when he is sentenced.
Brunsting, prosecutors wrote, “preyed on those inmates he was supposed to protect, including inmates with mental health issues…[He] has tarnished not only his badge with the Sheriff’s Department, but also the badges of every law enforcement officer.”
In another filing, prosecutors accused Branum of instigating the attack on Jones, saying he should serve three years behind bars. They wrote that Branum’s actions showed he “believed he was above the law” and said he had shown no remorse.
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Branum’s attorney, Donald M. Ré, noted in a filing that his client had served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, where he was credited with ordering a squad he was leading not to fire at Iraqi civilians who had ignored a curfew in Samarra and were officially subject to the rules of engagement. One of Branum’s former colleagues wrote in a letter filed with the court that Branum ordered his soldiers to instead help the Iraqi civilians return home safely, saving “countless innocent Iraqi lives on that one day alone.”
Ré, who argued that Branum should receive probation, filed dozens of letters in support of his client, including some from veterans who served alongside him.
“Jason Branum is a war hero who is highly respected by the members of the military who served with him, some of whom credit him with saving their lives,” Ré wrote. “While engaged in combat situations, he also risked his own life not only to save members of his own unit but to assist local civilians, despite the authority to engage.”
Brunsting’s attorney, Richard Hirsch, described his client as a hardworking and deeply devoted new father who supported himself through school before pursuing his dream of working in law enforcement.
During his nine-year career, Brunsting recalled volunteering roughly 300 hours to work undercover vice operations and was hand-selected to transport inmates across the country in extraditions, Hirsch wrote in a court filing.
Hirsch, who requested a prison sentence of no more than two years, attached to the filing 31 letters from Brunsting’s family members and coworkers, including one from a licensed clinical social worker who described him as “compassionate and understanding” when dealing with the mentally ill.
“It was always my experience that Deputy Brunsting took mental health seriously and advocated for treatment for my clients,” wrote Felicia Hall, who worked with Brunsting at the jail for four years.
Even so, Hirsch argued that Brunsting, who was selected to serve as a training officer within two years of joining the department at 22 years old, was not properly trained on how to deal with problems that arise from housing mentally ill inmates.
“Both defendants engaged in a vicious, premeditated assault on an inmate,” said U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker in a press release. “Deputy Brunsting’s conduct was even more egregious given that he was involved in the abuse of a second inmate, and he was training new deputies on how to violate inmates’ civil rights and get away with it.”
Adding, “These defendants tarnished all law enforcement with their conduct, undermining the outstanding work by the vast majority of officers in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the nation.”
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