L.A. County sheriff's deputies sentenced to federal prison in jail beating case

Two Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies were sentenced Monday to more than a year each in federal prison for lying on reports they wrote about violently subduing a handcuffed jail inmate.

Joey Aguiar was given 18 months and Mariano Ramirez 13 months after striking a deal with prosecutors that spared the men from being retried on an outstanding charge that they violated the inmate's civil rights by using excessive force.

In handing down her decision, U.S. District Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell said she believed the two deputies had, in fact, used excessive force, but ultimately showed them some leniency, noting the men had no prior criminal records.

While sentencing guidelines suggested the men should receive about two years behind bars, O'Connell highlighted the role of Ramirez, 40, as a father of two boys and the good he had made of his life despite a "significantly difficult upbringing." Aguiar, now 29, was young and new to the jailing assignment when the incident occurred and had otherwise led a law-abiding life, she said.

"But there has to be some sort of penalty when the wheels come off," O'Connell said.

At several points during the proceedings, O'Connell noted the plea deal that the U.S. attorney's office recently reached with former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca that allows him to serve no more than six months behind bars after having pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities. In light of the tough sentence prosecutors were seeking for the two deputies for a similar charge, O'Connell described the agreement with Baca as "troubling." Baca has yet to be sentenced and the judge in his case could reject the deal. 

The prison sentences capped one of the few remaining cases in a string of prosecutions stemming from abuses and other misconduct in the network of county jails run by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Another of the remaining cases is set to open Tuesday, when two other deputies will face allegations that they beat and pepper-sprayed an inmate who they felt had been disrespectful. The deputies, Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum, are also accused of falsifying reports in order to cover up the incident, which occurred at a different jail facility.

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The incident involving Aguiar and Ramirez dates back to February 2009, when the two deputies were working in Men’s Central Jail on a floor that houses especially violent inmates or those thought to be in need of special protection.

Aguiar and Ramirez acknowledged in internal department reports they wrote at the time that they used physical force to restrain an inmate, Bret Phillips, delivering repeated punches, striking him with a flashlight and pepper-spraying him in the face.

The force was necessary to subdue Phillips, the deputies said. They wrote in their reports that Phillips, who suffers from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, had attempted to head-butt Aguiar and continued to struggle after being pinned on the ground.

At the deputies’ trial in February, prosecutors argued that the men had fabricated their account and Phillips had done nothing to justify the force. The prosecutors offered a different version of the beating based on testimony from Phillips and two witnesses, claiming the deputies grew angry and targeted Phillips after the inmate acted out in frustration at being left handcuffed in his cell for a prolonged period.

Phillips could not have posed any serious threat to the deputies because his hands were shackled to a chain around his waist throughout the beating, prosecutors told jurors.

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In an odd, mixed-bag verdict, jurors acquitted the deputies of conspiring with each other to deprive Phillips of his civil rights and were hung on the question of whether they had used excessive force on the inmate, but found the deputies guilty of writing false reports about the incident.

In an interview after the verdict, the jury forewoman said all but two jurors had favored convicting the deputies of violating Phillips' civil rights. 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, the jury forewoman said.

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.

After prosecutors signaled that they planned to retry the men on the excessive force charge, the two sides struck a deal that cleared the way for the deputies to be sent to prison. In exchange for the government dropping the unresolved charged, Aguiar and Ramirez gave up their right to appeal their convictions on the false reports.

Before handing down the sentences, O'Connell pressed Assistant U.S. Atty. Jennifer Williams to explain why the government was pursuing so much more time in prison for the deputies than Baca.

Williams called the two cases "apples and oranges," noting, among other points, that Baca had admitted his guilt prior to being indicted and was not accused of an unjustified beating. By contrast, Williams said, Aguiar for one had struck a tone of self-pity, focusing in court filings on the fact that his lifelong dream of working for the Sheriff's Department was now ruined.

Aguiar's attorney, Evan Jenness, scoffed at the explanation, telling O'Connell she believed politics drove the government's decision to strike a more lenient deal with Baca.

Both Aguiar and Ramirez addressed O'Connell briefly, asking her to show them leniency. Crying, Ramirez pleaded with the judge to "allow me to be with my two sons. ... They need me and I need them."

Jenness and Ramirez's attorney, Vicki Podberesky, requested the men be spared prison time and sentenced to probation. They emphasized the dangers deputies face interacting with inmates and the difficult challenge they face of maintaining order in the specialized unit of the jail where the beating occurred. 

As O'Connell announced her sentence for Aguiar, family members sobbed quietly in the court's gallery. Later, as she addressed Ramirez, she told him she saw his situation in life as different from Aguiar's, indicating that was the reason for his shorter sentence.

Both men were ordered to turn themselves in to begin their sentences by Aug. 1.

The Sheriff’s Department previously said the two would be fired once they were sentenced.

For more news from the federal courts in Los Angeles, follow @joelrubin on Twitter.

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UPDATE

5:22 p.m.: This story was updated to add the ages of the deputies and the Sheriff's Department's previous comment that they would be fired after the sentencing hearing.

4:22 p.m.: This story was updated to add that another brutality trial of two sheriff's deputies is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

This story was first published at 2:28 p.m.

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