COMPETING NARRATIVES & DECIDING WHOM TO BELIEVE
The most recent jail brutality case brought by the federal government against members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department is, as usual, a case of whom do you believe.
In the trial that began on Tuesday of last week in the courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge George Wu, the prosecution’s case rides on a former sheriff’s deputy named Joshua Sather who was most outstanding recruit in his training academy graduating class in the spring of 2010. Yet, according to the government, this same deputy resigned from the department after less than two weeks on the job following an incident in which he was allegedly told to participate in the brutal beating of a mentally ill inmate at the instruction of his training officer.
Thus far, 19 current or former members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department have been convicted of federal charges resulting from a multi-year investigation into corruption, brutality and civil rights abuses in the department run LA County Jail system.
The defendants in this latest trial, are LASD deputies Bryan Brunsting and Jason Branum who are accused of beating, kicking and pepper spraying the allegedly unresisting mentally ill inmate named Philip Jones, and then falsifying reports about the incident by portraying Jones as the out-of control aggressor.
According to federal prosecutors, on March 22, 2010, both Brunsting, who was at the time the training officer for less experienced deputies, and Branum, a former military serviceman, decided to ‘teach” inmate Jones “a lesson” after the inmate mouthed off to a female custody assistant.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson also alleged in her opening statement that training officer Brunsting “set out to teach a lesson to a new deputy” about how to use and how to “get away with” excessive force. The “new deputy” was Joshua Sather.
In the course of the trial, the government produced five witnesses to support their case. But, it is Sather, and another witness named Porscha Singh, whom the prosecution most needs the jury to believe.
Conversely, for the defense to prevail, it must convince the jury that Sather and Singh are unreliable or out-and-out lying for self-serving reasons.
THE CUSTODY ASSISTANT
Porscha Singh was the first witness called by the prosecution. Singh was, at the time of the 2010 incident, a custody assistant working on the 6th floor of the Twin Towers jail. Custody assistants—or CAs—are jail workers who work for the sheriff’s department, but who are not slaw enforcement officers.
Before CA Singh began to tell her story, both she and prosecutor Dotson made clear that she did not want to be in court. “I was subpoenaed,” she said, “and I didn’t want a bench warrant to be issued.”
Singh also told the jury that had been given immunity, meaning that nothing that she said would be used to bring any kind of charges against her, “as long as my testimony is truthful.” If she lied, she said, “I could be sent to prison.”
Singh was the custody assistant whom schizophrenic inmate Philip Jones “disrespected,” thus setting the chain of events that allegedly led to his beating.
On the day in question, Singh said that she was stationed in “the control booth,” an elevated multi-windowed perch at one end of the 6th floor module where she generally worked, when at once she noticed that there was one more inmate than there should be in unit’s visiting center, the entrance to which was across the module from the control booth, thus in her direct line of sight.
In order to sort out the discrepancy, Singh keyed up the intercom in the visiting room and asked the inmates each to say their names then recite the last four digits of their booking numbers, so she could check IDs against the list of people who were supposed to have visitor passes. All but one of inmates dutifully complied. The inmate who failed to do so was Philip Jones who instead said, “Fuck that bitch.”
At that, according to her testimony, Singh came down out of the control room, unlocked the visiting area, and confronted inmate Jones.
“I told him ‘What the fuck was his problem?!” she said. Then she asked to see his wristband. He complied. She checked it, then went back to the booth.
And, no, Singh said in answer to prosecutor Dotson, “I was never afraid.”
She was, however, irritated. So, according to Singh, she then called out to deputy Branum who was standing within shouting range of the control booth, “Somebody needs to check that motherfucker because he has a bad attitude!”
Jason Branum allegedly told her not to worry about it, that he was going to handle it.
“Nobody disrespects my CA”—meaning custody assistant—Singh said that Branum said.
Singh said she told him to “leave it alone,” and additional F-Bomb laden words to that effect.
(Singh is short and curvy with a slightly pugnacious demeanor, and during the whole of her testimony and cross-examination, displayed a breezy verbal mastery of the art of F-bomb usage.)
Around five minutes after that exchange, according to Singh, deputies Brunsting and Branum asked her to “pop’ the door to the visiting area—-“pop” being slang for “unlock.” She popped the door, and moments later she saw Jones being escorted by the three deputies.
Q: Did you see him resist at any time? A. No.
The deputies then escorted the inmate inside another door that led to a hallway connecting two modules, but where there were no cameras. Singh said that, on instinct, she pushed the intercom button allowing her to listen in on whatever went on in the camera free connecting hallway the deputies and their charge had entered, without anyone knowing she was listening.
Sign said she first heard training officer Brunting say, “Nobody disrespects my boot CA!”
Then a voice she assumed was Jones said, “Are you guys going to mess me up?”
“Then I heard a commotion.” Finally, she said, one of the deputies put out a “415” radio call, meaning deputy involved fight. Within a minute, other deputies ran into the area. A minute or two later still a “Code 4” was broadcast on the radio meaning everything’s okay.
When it was their turn, defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re did what they could to dent Singh’s credibility by pointing out some inconsistencies between her trial testimony and her grand jury testimony and noting that in an interview with the LASD’s internal affairs, she told an altogether different story.
Yet, Singh freely admitted that she had lied to internal affairs to protect herself and her deputy colleagues.
THE HONOR RECRUIT
Former deputy Joshua Sather was next. Sather is broad shouldered, on the low side of medium height, and has good bones. He did not look happy to be on the stand.
In answer to questions by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon Fox, Sather told the jury that when he joined the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, it was October of 2009, he was 23-years-old and had been working in Colorado as a paralegal, but felt he wanted a more meaningful career.
“I wanted to do something to help people,” he said. It was this desire that led him to law enforcement.
Sather’s uncle, his father’s brother, was a gang detective at the department’s Carson station, and told his nephew he loved what he did and that the LASD was a good place to work. “My uncle had an influence,” said Sather.
Sather told how, after he was accepted into the department, he went through 19 weeks of academy training along with approximately 49 other recruits. Upon graduating in February of 2010, was selected as the “honor recruit,” which meant, he explained when Fox probed, he was the top performer in all areas in his class.
After graduation, he went through a few additional weeks of training to work in the county’s jails, where nearly all newly-minted deputies are stationed for a few years before they can transfer to patrol. In March of 2010, he started at the Twin Towers, the newer custody facility built next to the county’s decrepit and infamously troubled, Men’s Central Jail.
All new deputies are assigned to training officers. But a day or two after Sather began work, his training officer’s wife had a baby, and he took paternity leave.
Sather‘s second T.O. was Bryan Brunsting.
On March 22, 2010, when the event in question occurred, Sather said he had been on the job about seven days, and was working with some other deputies on the 4th floor of the jail when he said he received a call from Brunsting, who told him to return to the 6th floor’s 161 unit, where he was met by Brunsting, Branum and a third deputy.
It was then, according to Sather, that Brunsting talked of the necessity to teach inmate Jones “a lesson.”
Sather described how the door to the interconnecting hallway area that Singh had described earlier was opened and inmate Jones was directed by Brunsting to go down the hallway.
As the door to the hallway closed, effectively locking the group into the narrow passage, according to Sather, Jones took a few steps then turned and said, “Oh, shit. I’m going to get my ass kicked!” Or words to that general effect.
“Then he began running down the hallway toward the door at the far end.” But that door was closed and locked.
“I ran after him and tackled him,” said Sather. Then he described striking Jones in the ribs and legs “because we were teaching him a lesson.”
Jones was not resisting in any way, according to Sather. Not kicking, attempting to punch, simply going limp and attempting to protect himself with his hands.
At that point, Sather stood up, because, “the inmate wasn’t doing anything.”
But Brunsting reportedly indicated that things weren’t finished.
Sather then said he saw Brunsting spread the inmate’s legs. “And then he kicked him hard in his privates.”
Jones cried out, according to Sather, and curled sow-bug-like into a fetal position in reaction to the pain of the kick.
“He was crying like a little kid who’s hurting but is also scared.”
Sather remembers more blows being directed toward the still unresisting Jones.
Sometime after that, according to Sather, deputy Branum pepper-sprayed Jones directly into his face.
As much of this activity went on, Sather said, he heard the other deputies say, “Stop resisting, stop resisting.”
Eventually the “lesson” was over, Brunsting radioed and more deputies arrived. As they came, Sather helped to handcuff Jones.
Then the inmate was escorted to the infirmary by yet another deputy, and was treated for injuries.
REPORTS, REVISIONS & RESIGNATIONS
Next, according to Sather, Brunsting ordered the beating participants to convene in the observation booth. Once there, custody assistant Singh was asked to leave, so the rest could sort out what should appear in the various incident reports that were required after any use of force. Brunsting told Sather he was to write the primary report, so he could learn how it was done, with Brunsting and Branum writing the “supplementary reports.”
According to Sather, Brunsting gave him his own report to use as a model. After writing several rejected drafts, Sather said, he eventually wrote a report that matched Brunsting’s almost word-for-word.
The jury was able to see both reports—Brunsting’s and Sather’s—which each described a violently uncooperative Jones who verbally and physically assaulted two of the deputies and was restrained only with great difficulty and a 3-5 second blast of oleoresin capsicum spray, also known as OC spray or pepper spray.
“Was what you wrote true?” prosecutor Fox asked Sather after the deputy read multiple passages from the matching reports in front of the jury.
“No, sir,” said Sather.
“So why did you write it?”
“I was told to do it.”
Eventually, the reports were approved by Brunsting and turned in to the proper higher-ups. Yet when Sather got home, he said his involvement with the beatdown of inmate Jones and the reports that followed, “began to bother me.”
In a state of upset he called his uncle and told him what had happened.
The next day, Sather resigned. When asked to explain his reason for leaving, he said he told the jail’s then watch commander, Lt. Elisabeth Sachs, that he needed to go back to Colorado because of a family matter involving his brother, none of which was true.
So, why didn’t he tell Lt. Sachs about the beating? asked Fox.
“I didn’t want to be that guy. I didn’t want to be a snitch.”
The lieutenant told Sather to take his upcoming weekend days and think matters over, that she would hold on to the resignation paperwork until he returned on March 28, at which time he could make a final decision.
Sather’s uncle and his dad took the unhappy deputy to Las Vegas for the weekend to talk things through. (The dad lives in Colorado, so Las Vegas was considered a sort of midpoint, Sather explained.)
But, despite all the talking, after they all came home, on March 28, Sather called Lt. Sachs and asked her to put through the paperwork for his resignation.
A week later, according to Sather, his uncle persuaded him that, if he was leaving, he owed it to himself and to the department to tell some LASD higher up the truth about why he was leaving.
So on April 6, Sather gave an accounting of the events of March 22, including the beating of inmate Jones and the subsequent allegedly false reports, to Captain Anthony Ward.
A few months later, he was interviewed by internal affairs, to whom Sather said he was far less truthful.
A few months later still, the FBI contacted Sather in the course of their ongoing investigation into brutality in the jails, and interviewed him where he was, by then, living back in Colorado.
“TRUTH” VERSUS “TRUTH”
As with Singh, defense attorneys Richard Hirsch and Donald Re energetically fished out any inconsistencies between the various accounts Sather gave to the LASD Captain, to the grand jury, and to internal affairs.
In closing arguments that will take place Monday morning, the defense is expect to tell the jury that Sather—perhaps together with his detective uncle—completely fabricated the account of a non-resisting Jones being viciously and unnecessarily beaten, for his own purposes.
(Uncle Michael Sather was one of the prosecution’s additional witnesses. Lt. Sachs was the defense team’s sole witness.)
The defense is also expected to argue that Singh was telling any “truth” the government wanted to hear in order to get the desired immunity.
During closing, the prosecution will counter with its own narrative of the beating of mentally ill inmate Philip Jones.
And then, likely around noon on Monday, the case will go to the jury who will, in turn, decide whose story to believe.
One thing that the jury will not hear is the fact that the feds have a second case of jail brutality filed against Brunsting. The alleged incident occurred on August 20, 2009 and, it too, involved a deputy trainee who was allegedly asked to falsify incident reports, accusing the inmate of assaulting deputies, rather than the other way around. The charges are mentioned, in brief, in the original indictment, but then were severed into a separate case by the judge. One assumes that the question of whether or not the prosecutors will actually bring this additional case to trial will likely depend on the outcome of the trial that ends on Monday.