2 sheriff's deputies in jail abuse case won't be retried on excessive force charges

Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies struck a deal Tuesday with federal prosecutors that spares them a second trial on charges related to their beating of a handcuffed jail inmate, but cements convictions they lied about the violent encounter.

The deal would clear the way for the deputies to be sent to prison. Both sides agreed not to contest prison sentences as long as they fall within federal guidelines that call for the deputies to receive prison terms of about two years.

Under the terms of the agreement, prosecutors would not retry the deputies, Joey Aguiar and Mariano Ramirez, on an outstanding charge that they violated the inmate’s civil rights by using excessive force. In exchange, the deputies would give up their right to appeal a jury’s findings earlier this month that they wrote false reports about the incident.

The settlement would bring an end to the latest in a series of cases in which sheriff’s deputies and higher-ranking officials in the department have been convicted of misconduct and abuse in county jails.

In deciding to make the deal, officials in the U.S. attorney's office weighed the unpredictable outcome of a second trial against putting the inmate and other witnesses through the “traumatic experience” of testifying again, said Mack Jenkins, one of the two prosecutors who tried the case.

He said the agreement means the case will be resolved far more quickly than if the deputies had filed appeals, which can take years to be decided.

“We consider this a deal for the defendants but justice for the community, the victim and others involved in the case,” Jenkins said.

Ramirez's attorney, Vicki Podberesky, said the 40-year-old father of two young children decided to make the deal “with very mixed emotions.”

Ramirez “just did not feel he could go through another trial with the possibility of a conviction,” she said. “On balance, we felt it was the right thing to do.”

Aguiar's lawyer declined to comment.

U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O'Connell, who presided over the trial, scheduled a hearing on the agreement for Wednesday morning.

Federal guidelines suggest prison sentences ranging from 21 to 27 months for the deputies, although O’Connell has the discretion to show leniency or come down more harshly. If she delivers sentences outside that range, the deal allows either side to appeal her decision.

Nearly seven years after the February 2009 incident in Men’s Central Jail, the case went to trial last month and ended with a mixed verdict. Jurors convicted the deputies of writing false reports but split 10 to 2 in favor of a conviction on whether the force the men used was justified.

The deputies were also acquitted of conspiring with each other to deprive the inmate, Bret Phillips, 44, of his civil rights.

The deputies acknowledged in internal department reports they wrote at the time that they repeatedly punched Phillips, struck him with a flashlight and pepper-sprayed him in the face. They said Phillips had attempted to head-butt Aguiar and continued to struggle after being pinned on the ground.

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Prosecutors argued that Phillips did not try to head-butt the deputy and had done nothing to justify the force, portraying Aguiar and Ramirez as bent on punishing the inmate for acting out. Phillips was attacked, they said, after he threw milk cartons in frustration at being left in his cell and one hit Aguiar on his shoe. Prosecutors said Phillips posed no serious threat because his hands were shackled to a chain around his waist throughout the beating.

Discrepancies between medical records that showed Phillips suffered minor injuries and dramatic accounts of a brutal beating from the prosecution’s witnesses were troubling to the two jurors who refused to vote guilty on the excessive force charge, the jury forewoman said in an interview after the verdict.

Nonetheless, the jurors concluded that the reports Aguiar and Ramirez submitted about the violent encounter, which mirrored each other verbatim in several parts, did not accurately reflect what occurred, the forewoman said.

Despite an announcement last week that they intended to retry the deputies on the excessive force count, prosecutors quietly approached the deputies' attorneys with the agreement. The deputies and prosecutors signed and filed the deal Tuesday.

Both Aguiar and Ramirez were relieved of duty years ago and were not paid as they awaited trial. Once the deputies are sentenced, “it is the Sheriff’s Department’s intention to separate both deputies from the department,” a spokeswoman for the sheriff said.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Find me on Twitter: @joelrubin

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UPDATE

8:39 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information.

This article was first published at 4:50 p.m.

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