Jurors convict 1 San Bernardino deputy, deadlock on 2 others in televised beating case

A San Bernardino County jury Thursday convicted a sheriff’s deputy of assault for his role in the televised beating of a man in the high desert after a horseback pursuit.

Jurors found Charles Foster guilty of assault under the color of authority by a public officer, a charge that carries up to three years in county jail, according to Chris Lee, spokesman for the San Bernardino County district attorney’s office.

But Foster’s verdict — a rare vote of guilt for a sworn law enforcement officer — was only a partial victory for prosecutors: The jury deadlocked over two other sheriff’s deputies charged in the case.

For Michael Phelps and Nicholas Downey, jurors voted 8 to 4 in favor of guilt. Prosecutors have not made a final decision on whether to seek a retrial, but a hearing is scheduled for April 21, Lee said.

“Thank you to the jury for the hard work they put into this case,” Dist. Atty. Mike Ramos said afterward. “I want to emphasize that the actions of these three defendants should in no way diminish the outstanding work being done every day by the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department.”

On April 9, 2015, Downey and Phelps were among the first deputies to arrive in the rugged high desert in pursuit of Francis Pusok, who led police on a three-hour chase involving a motorcycle and then a stolen horse.

He fell from the horse in rugged terrain and as a KNBC-TV helicopter hovered overhead, deputies kicked and punched him even after he appeared to have surrendered.

Additional deputies arrived and pummeled Pusok for about a minute before placing him in handcuffs.

Foster arrived after Pusok had been handcuffed, authorities said at the time the case was filed. No charges were filed against seven other deputies at the scene, and Ramos, the district attorney, said their use of force was “was reasonable under the circumstances.”

Heather N. Phillips, who represented Foster during trial, said the deputy’s family was “devastated” by the verdict.

“Obviously we are disappointed. This was not what we were hoping for, and not what we expected,” Phillips said.

The defense attorney said she planned to eventually appeal the verdict and accused the prosecutor of making inappropriate comments during trial, including closing arguments that compared the case to the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan.

“The facts and evidence are one thing,” Phillips added. “But unfortunately, the prosecution chose to present the case in a way that created a prejudicial, very anti-law enforcement environment.”

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Bulloch, the prosecutor, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Michael Schwartz, the defense attorney who represented Downey, said the video posed challenges for jurors’ analysis.

“It’s incredibly difficult for [jurors] to see the event through the perception of the officers on the scene, which is the law, as opposed to a two-dimensional video from a very different vantage point,” Schwartz said.

“I think the jurors’ inability to reach a verdict tells us they have a lot of uncertainty and disagreed over the evidence, and to me, that shows there was reasonable doubt.”

The chase began when deputies arrived at a house in an unincorporated area of Apple Valley shortly after noon to serve a search warrant in an identity theft case.

Pusok, who was not a suspect but had been arrested several times previously, was nearby and fled at the sight of law enforcement.

After the televised confrontation with deputies, Pusok was treated for cuts and bruises. He later received a $650,000 settlement from the county. The beating also spawned a civil rights investigation by the FBI.

From the pursuit, Pusok also faced a range of charges: evading a police officer, resisting arrest, stealing an animal, cruelty to an animal and being under the influence of drugs. He was also charged with three counts each of vehicle theft and receiving stolen property.

Pusok’s trial is scheduled for May.

After the verdict was reached, San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon issued a statement, saying that he had “the highest respect for our criminal justice system.”

“The jury has spoken,” McMahon said. “Let’s not discourage the daily efforts of all the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department. Our employees will continue to provide dedicated service and will always be committed to serving the public.”

It’s unclear what the deputies’ current employment status with the county is.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno

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UPDATES:

10:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about prosecutors declining to file charges against other deputies at the scene.

This article was originally published at 3:30 a.m.

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