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In federal trial, jury finds Hernando deputies’ actions justified

TAMPA — Michael Bratt told a story.

He said that Hernando County sheriff’s deputies attacked him in his home early one morning eight years ago, beat him severely on his front lawn, and continued the assault as they took him to a hospital.

But another story emerged this week at the end of a federal civil trial.

In this version, the deputies struggled to control Bratt, who was drunk and violent when they came to his house to investigate a noise complaint.

"These deputies were out there doing their jobs, dealing with a situation caused by Michael Bratt’s intoxicated behavior," defense attorney Bobby Palmer said in closing arguments.

A jury agreed. They deliberated for 90 minutes late Friday, then found that the deputies were justified in their conduct and did not violate the civil rights of Bratt and his wife, Marjorie Youmans.

Bratt and Youmans had been seeking more than $10 million in damages.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Hernando couple alleging deputies broke husband’s eye socket seek $10 million in federal trial

The defense’s case included testimony from several other deputies who were at the Bratt home early on Dec. 26, 2009, hours after Bratt and Youmans hosted a Christmas party in their house on Snow Hill Road. The jury also heard from neighbors who witnessed portions of what happened.

In closing arguments, Palmer noted one neighbor’s testimony that Bratt tried to pick a fight earlier that evening. He also mentioned Bratt’s ownership of a small cannon, which Palmer said was likely what spurred the neighbor’s report of hearing an explosion.

"All Michael Bratt had to do was talk civilly to the law enforcement officer, admit he was shooting off his cannon, and say goodnight," Palmer told the jury. "If Michael Bratt had done that, we wouldn’t be here today."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Man recalls beating from Hernando deputies in federal excessive force trial

Attorney Steve Yerrid, who represented Bratt and Youmans, said the deputies abused their authority and tainted the image of all law enforcement officers. He echoed Palmer’s opening statement, in which he described the case as a cop’s "worst nightmare."

"The trust of a badge has been betrayed by a couple of bad-acting individuals," Yerrid said. "That is a policeman’s worst nightmare."

The defense’s account began with Deputy Steven George, who was the first to respond after the noise complaint. He met with Bratt’s next-door neighbors, Joe and Eugenia Simpson, before hopping a fence that bordered Bratt’s property.

George was unaware there was a call box at the front gate, Palmer said. The attorney argued he was justified in going over the fence to investigate.

Bratt, who had been drinking that evening, told George to go away. His wife, Youmans, joined him at the front door, and also told the deputy he was trespassing.

As George moved to call for backup, Bratt grabbed the deputy and pulled him in the house, Palmer said.

The Simpsons, who could hear the initial confrontation from their property, testified that they heard Youmans yelling, "Stop, Michael! Stop!"

"That is consistent with Deputy’s George’s testimony that he’s getting attacked by Michael Bratt," Palmer said.

George was thrown into a living room, Palmer said, where he smacked his face on a coffee table, breaking his nose.

Bratt grabbed the deputy’s Taser and shocked him, Palmer said. George, screamed for help over his radio, and put Bratt into handcuffs.

Kenneth Van Tassel, the next deputy to arrive, escorted Bratt out of the house. On the way out, Bratt tried to bite him, the former deputy testified. Van Tassel pushed him away.

Bratt’s head hit a stucco wall. That was what caused an eye injury, later revealed to be a broken orbital bone, Palmer argued. The injury led Bratt’s eyeball to descend into his sinus cavity.

Bratt claimed the injury happened when a third officer, Deputy Louis Genovese, thrust his knee into Bratt’s eye. He also said Genovese, who escorted him in a patrol cruiser to the hospital, intentionally slammed on the brakes at high speeds, and stopped three different times to beat him.

But more than one witness testified that the stops were due to Bratt kicking the windows and trying to spit on Genovese.

Out of more than 20 witnesses who testified, only Bratt and his wife claimed they saw him being beaten, Palmer noted.

Sitting quietly in the gallery on the trial’s final day was Barry Cohen, the prominent Tampa attorney who brought the case on behalf of Bratt and Youmans. Cohen, battling leukemia, passed the case to Yerrid, his longtime friend. Yerrid mentioned his presence before closing arguments.

"If I make a mistake, it’s me," Yerrid said. "All the good parts, I give him credit for."

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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