A Kern Valley State Prison inmate who had faced the death penalty after stomping his cellmate to death was sentenced Tuesday to life without parole during a hearing in which attorneys argued over whether justice was served and defense counsel called the prosecutor a "sore loser."
A jury last year convicted 47-year-old Dennis Bratton in the brutal killing of his cellmate, Andrew Keel, but deadlocked 10-2 on the penalty phase, with 10 voting he should be put to death. In California, a unanimous recommendation is needed from a jury before a judge imposes a sentence of death.
A mistrial was declared, and the prosecution then waived death instead of retrying the penalty phase.
At the time of the May 16, 2013, killing, Bratton was serving a life term for a 1996 bank robbery in San Diego County. He had previously beaten and stomped another inmate in 2010 with enough force the man required brain surgery.
Prosecutor Andi Bridges argued at trial Bratton deserved no mercy and should be put to death for killing the 27-year-old Keel.
On Tuesday, Bridges told the court that comments from other jurors indicated the two jurors who did not vote for death failed to deliberate during the penalty phase. Ten jurors took their jobs seriously, she said, but those two violated their sworn oaths.
"This is an instance where we do feel the system failed," Bridges said.
Public Defender Pam Singh, Bratton's attorney along with Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman, argued that the notion that the legal system somehow failed because the prosecution didn't get a death verdict is "terribly disappointing."
She said she and Cadman, while disagreeing with the 10 jurors who voted for death, respect the verdict of every juror.
"We reject the notion that somehow justice failed because one side didn't get their way," she said.
Before sentencing, Keel's older sister, Jessica McCoy, addressed the court with tears in her eyes. She said her brother was a "troublemaker," but had never been convicted of violent crimes when he was sentenced to 25 years to life upon receiving a third strike. That sentence, she said, turned out to be a death sentence because he ended up meeting Bratton.
She said she often thinks of the phone call she received from the prison lieutenant who informed her of her brother's death. Later that day, she had to break the news to her mother.
"That day our lives were all shattered at the hands of the defendant, yet his life remains unchanged," McCoy said.
Throughout the trial, McCoy said, Bratton never showed remorse. She said she made eye contact with him multiple times and "only saw hatred in his eyes."
Judge Michael E. Dellostritto said he had little leeway in the sentence Bratton received given the jury's decision. Regarding the attorneys' comments about the penalty phase, Dellostritto said it was clear to him that he needed to declare a mistrial after hearing the comments of several jurors.
Dellostritto then imposed a sentence of life without parole plus 15 years. That sentence will be served consecutive to the life term Bratton is currently serving.
Afterward, Cadman accused Bridges of failing to respect the legal system.
"Mere disappointment with two jurors who were against the 10 who had a mob mentality in attempting to extinguish a human life is shocking," Cadman said.
"Those two jurors are heroes and Mr. Bratton, while taking umbrage with the 10 'killer jurors,' owes his very life not just to jurors 8 and 9, and not just Ms. Singh and I, but to the entire American jury system that has been a hallmark of our nation since the Revolutionary War."
Cadman said he thought the comments made by McCoy were appropriate as "she lost her brother and I understand her pain." But he said the comments of Bridges "blaming everyone but herself was evidence of a sore loser."
He noted jurors were approved by both sides.
Bridges said the defense misconstrued her words, and she didn't feel the system failed because she didn't get a death verdict, but solely because the two jurors never deliberated.
"That's where the system failed," she said. "They did not uphold the law."
Bridges said Bratton's behavior hasn't changed since Keel's death. While awaiting trial, he knocked another inmate unconscious for beating him at handball.
She said it's not a matter of if, but when Bratton will harm or even kill someone else.