One was a war hero, a Bronze Star recipient credited with using restraint in Iraq to save the lives of local civilians.
The other was known as a hard-working cop whom one social worker described as “compassionate and understanding” with mentally ill jail inmates.
Jason Branum and Bryan Brunsting worked alongside each other as Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies in the downtown Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
But on Monday, a federal judge sentenced them to prison for beating a mentally ill inmate and lying to cover up the attack, saying the pair were swept up in an “us versus them” culture in the jails that pitted deputies against inmates.
The two men are the latest deputies to face imprisonment in connection with a county jail abuse probe that has so far led to the convictions of 20 Sheriff’s Department officials.
Brunsting, 31, was ordered to spend 21 months in custody, and Branum, 36, was given five months. U.S. District Judge George Wu ruled that they could remain free pending their appeals.
Both sentences fell below what prosecutors — and, in Brunsting’s case, even the defense — had requested, with Wu questioning whether handing down lengthy sentences would deter other law enforcement officers from similar misconduct. He asked whether the prosecution really thought an officer would look at the sentences and say, “I’d do it if I get six months, but I won’t do it if I get three years.”
“Yes,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Brandon Fox said emphatically, suggesting that he’s heard people on wiretaps urging each other to knock off criminal behavior after stiff sentences were handed to others.
Defense attorneys portrayed Brunsting as a young, immature deputy thrust into a position of teaching other deputies early in his career despite having no training on managing mentally ill inmates. Prosecutors accused Brunsting of fostering a culture of abuse, though Wu was not convinced.
“He’s not that high up,” Wu said. “I can’t understand how he could be the fomenter of the adverse mentality that was there.”
As a training deputy, Fox said, Brunsting taught the officers he mentored how to use violence to command respect from inmates and then lie to cover it up. In August 2009, Fox wrote in a court filing, Brunsting choked out an inmate and wrote a false report under the name of a deputy he was training. Prosecutors dropped the charges stemming from that incident in exchange for Brunsting agreeing to allow the judge to consider the conduct when he is sentenced.
“This is acting with impunity,” Fox said. “This is saying, ‘We are above the law.’”
Branum, meanwhile, was described by his attorney as a decorated war hero who gave up his military career to devote himself to his family.
“I’ve spent the majority of my adult life protecting people who can’t protect themselves,” Branum told the judge before his sentencing.
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.
“They conspired to assault somebody,” Fox said. “They conspired to cover it up.”
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 crosshairs 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.
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.”
The U.S. attorney’s office asked the judge to give Brunsting a punishment similar to the prison terms handed out to three former sheriff’s officials convicted in a separate beating case. Those defendants received sentences that ranged from 72 to 96 months.
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.
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 instead of prison time, filed dozens of letters in support of his client, including some from veterans who served alongside him.
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 worked 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 co-workers.
“It was always my experience that Deputy Brunsting took mental health seriously and advocated for treatment for my clients,” wrote Felicia Hall, a licensed clinical social worker 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 age 22, was not properly trained on how to deal with problems that arise from housing mentally ill inmates.
Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.
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6:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the hearing.
3:30 p.m.: This article was updated with more details from the sentencing hearing.
12:10 p.m.: This article was updated with details about the sentences.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.