Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Alabama deputies put a revenge beatdown on handyman, and the man's vocal advocate is murdered

Robert Bryant, after his beating by Alabama sheriff's deputies
(Photo by Madison County Sheriff's Department, from al.com)
The nation's attention has been focused on two cases of apparent police misconduct--the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City.

As horrifying as those cases are, the most troubling case of dysfunctional law enforcement might be unfolding near Huntsville, Alabama. It shines new light on my own ugly encounter with Alabama deputies, in Shelby County (south of Birmingham), in October 2013.

At the heart of the Huntsville story is a handyman named Robert Bryant, who lives just across the state border in Tennessee. He was stalked by Madison County sheriff's deputies, pulled over in an apparently bogus traffic stop, and brutally beaten by the side of a road while in handcuffs, his teeth knocked out. It all apparently was in retaliation for a barroom scuffle that Bryant had engaged in with an off-duty deputy named Justin Watson.

Then the story turns really dark.

Jason Klonowski had essentially become Bryant's public voice; the two had become friends after Klonowski hired Bryant to do work on his farm. Klonowski, convinced that deputies had mistreated his friend, found lawyers for Bryant and helped pay his legal bills. He paid for signs and T-shirts to show support for Bryant and raise questions about the sheriff's department. He stated at a public event on September 28, 2013, that he would not stop until at least two deputies, Watson and Jake Church, were in prison.

A little more than a month later, Klonowski was found dead. He had been placed in a chair next to his barn, wearing a cap. But when the cap was removed, investigators saw he had been executed, with three gunshot wounds to the back of his head.

The FBI is investigating possible criminal civil-rights violations by multiple deputies, and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation is looking into the murder of Jason Klonowski, which remains unsolved.

Reporter Challen Stephens lays it out in a compelling seven-part series, which ran all of last week at al.com. My experience has been that the mainstream press in Alabama usually doesn't take a close look at cases of possible police misconduct. But Stephens shines a bright light on the case of Robert Bryant and Jason Klonowski, and the series is likely to be a candidate for major journalism awards.

Bryant filed a lawsuit, and the county quickly paid $625,000 to settle the matter earlier this year. No depositions were taken in the case before the county's insurer agreed to make the payment.

Murder victim Jason Klonowski
Justice, however, hardly has been reached, Stephens reports. Sheriff Blake Dorning, who was in charge at the time of the beating and murder, recently was re-elected to a fourth term, without opposition in the GOP primary. Watson was found to be "deceitful" in his testimony at an inquiry about the Bryant beating, but he received only a two-week suspension. The department has said it will wait on the results of the FBI investigation and any possible indictments from the U.S. Department of Justice before determining if other deputies will be disciplined.

Hank Sherrod, an attorney for Bryant, had this to say about the the sheriff's department stance of waiting to see what happens with federal authorities:

"That's essentially saying I have a policy of no discipline," said Hank Sherrod, Bryant's attorney, observing that federal indictments against local police are rare.

Last August, Sherrod wrote this statement in response to sheriff's department inaction:

"This is an outrageous policy and explains how the deputies who beat Robert Bryant thought they could get away with it. It is sad indeed that only an investigation by federal law enforcement officials gives Robert Bryant hope that these deputies will be held accountable for their crimes. Until that hoped-for day, these deputies patrol Madison County, hold all the powers of any law enforcement officer, and know they have the full support of the sheriff."

Where does all of this stand? In the final installment of his series on Sunday, Stephens reports:

On Nov. 4, 2014, Dorning won re-election for a fourth term. He was uncontested in the GOP primary. The Klonowski case remains unsolved, largely left to the charge of a single state investigator who has repeatedly interviewed Klonowski's few friends and associates, but not the deputies who Klonowski had promised to see imprisoned.

To this day, nearly all involved continue to work as deputies and enforce the law in Madison County.

In other words, no one really has been held accountable--and the same applies in my case. I was arrested on October 23, 2013, because of an unlawful preliminary injunction in a defamation lawsuit brought by Birmingham attorney Rob Riley, the son of former Governor Bob Riley. I stayed in jail for five months on a charge of contempt of court, in a civil matter, becoming the only journalist in the western hemisphere to be incarcerated in 2013.

Do I have an idea how Robert Bryant might feel about his experience? Yes, I do. A deputy named Mike DeHart conducted a bogus traffic stop on my wife and me, falsely claiming I had run through a stop sign--when his clear aim was to serve me with court papers in the Riley lawsuit. It's hard to imagine a more blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Less than a month after that, Deputy Chris Blevins entered our garage, which is essentially a basement underneath our house, and proceeded to beat me up. He knocked me to a concrete floor three times and maced me in the face --all without showing a warrant or even saying he had a warrant. In fact, video of the incident shows Blevins did not tell me he was there for an arrest until I had already been sprayed with mace.

I was charged with resisting arrest--even though Blevins own incident report states I did nothing but raise my arms in front of my face, to ward off his attack. At the trial on that charge, prosecutor Tonya Willingham was ordered to turn over any warrants, and she told Judge Ron Jackson that she didn't have any. Blevins also admitted that the incident constituted a traffic stop--I was coming home and trying to pull our car into the garage--and he had no probable cause to stop me for a traffic violation.

Based on courtroom evidence, my arrest and five-month jail stay represent a butchery of due process.

Evidence also strongly suggests that both DeHart and Blevins testified falsely in official proceedings about what they did to my wife and me.

So yes, I think I know how Robert Bryant feels. And the murder of Jason Kronkowski is starting to make me feel lucky that I'm alive.


Anonymous said...

The news on law enforcement just keeps getting worse. This Klonowski fellow was assassinated, it appears. Looks like some cops are a lot like the mafia.

Anonymous said...

One of the most disturbing stories I've read in a long time.

Anonymous said...

Something very similar happened to me in Pensylvania

Anonymous said...

Sad this happens anywhere but to someone you know is even worst. Keep praying!

legalschnauzer said...

You knew Mr. Bryant or Mr. Klonowski, @9:19? This kind of thing should never happen to anyone in the U.S. Alabama is pretty much a police state these days. Hats off to Mr. Stephens for reporting on this. A number of people in the sheriff's office should go to prison.

Unknown said...

Police that fail to protect others need to be removed from civil service. Police who falsely accuse and abuse those they should be protecting should be thrown in jail and are worse than criminals. These men made promises, they are protected by taxes but they are only citizens. They are fully exposed to the law, like any other citizen.


Unknown said...

Police that murder those they are sworn to protect must suffer the death penalty.

e.a.f. said...

This is just another reason police ought not to be elected to office. It just makes for too much cronism.

part of the problem as I see it, is many American cops are poorly paid and poorly trained. They simply are not equipped socially, intellectually, emotionally to be "peace officers". when municipal entitles do not pay police decent salaries they are not able to attract decent staff. we have only too look at the south. In Canada, we do have our problems with police officers also, but provinces now have review committees for "wrong doings". Police Depts also have a choice of candidates for the jobs, which pay approx. $70K when at full salary. Many of the officers have degrees, it is not unusual for some to have Masters and PhDs. There is also an emphasis on "life experience' when hiring is done.

The American police depts. are starting to look a lot like those Taliban "police" in rural, tribal areas in the middle east. You know, not much education, can barely read or write, and go around beating citizens with canes, if they don't conform.

The U.S.A. has lost is moral authority to comment on anything any other country is doing in this world. The police murder and get away with it. Other arms of the government torture people and politicians think its o.k.

History has been clear about what happens in societies such as this.

And Sampson, one killing does not justify another. Death penalties have never lowered the murder rate anywhere. All you get, usually is innocent people executed. I have yet to hear of a criminal or other person who stopped to think before committing a crime, about the penalty. Perhaps the odd "white" collar crime, but the rest, not so much.

I live in Canada and we haven't had the death penalty since the 1960s. We have less murder now then back then. Our murder rate continues to decline, well except the odd time there is some sort of "gang warfare".

State sanctioned death is still death and no one has the right to kill another. The bible is very clear, thou shalt not kill. it doesn't provide any exceptions. Oh and don't go to that part about an eye for an eye, that is so old testament.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


No one cares what Canadians think... Get off your moral high horse. If it wasn't for the US, you would have been conquered long ago... In fact, if we weren't your protector, you would be part of the US already. Here's an idea... go crawl back into your beer guzzling stupor and allow the US to handle their own problems.

Now... US... get your heads out of your asses! No one should care what happened to Michael Brown... he was a thug who reaped what he sewed. EVERYONE should care about this case and about Eric Garner... Eric Garner was killed, essentially for tax evasion. What the F***? This thing in Madison is disturbing and someone needs to get to the bottom of it. Oh, and I want to see the video of the beatdown in the garage...

Anonymous said...


john said...

You sir are correct about nearly everything in your comment. The one thing I would like to say though is that not every province has a committee to investigate police wrongdoing. My home province of PEI is the lone holdout

Anonymous said...

WOW,this is insane but it goes to show the other people in America that even the public is so stupid that it supports corruption and tyranny in its political offices (Sheriff's department). To vote for the sheriff to be reelected after this is insane. Those people in Madison country must not keep abreast of current affairs. Kinda like the rest of this nation reelecting an imposter for president. Those so-called officers needs to be executed just like they did to Mr. Klonowski's friend. What a travesty of justice.

This is America's judicial system: It is organized crime at its worst because it is supported by the city, county, state and federal government with your tax dollars.

JonesValley said...

The most important thing about these articles is not that the cops are purporting a police state in order to protect the larger businesses from being outed as treasonous.

The most important thing is there are US citizens that do NOT think this is out of the ordinary. Stating that people should follow the rules and they won't get killed or beaten, when clearly most cases are absolute police brutality and causes for these crimes made up after the fact.

Basically stating if they weren't dresses so black-like things wouldn't happen. Insinuating that these people asked for it. Further implying that if you are a citizen and you commit a misdemeanor you're lucky if you don't get shot. And, if you do get shot no one will stand up for your freedom because citizen slaves are too scared of forced poverty to step off their racist platform.

Anonymous said...

Things are not much better here in the rural parishes of Louisiana. I am posting as anonymous because I fear law enforcement's retaliation.

The sheriff's son in my parish has repeatedly beat up people and it is widely known that he and his friends use or have used drugs and als abuse alcohol.

They even attacked off-duty deputies in another parish and pretty much got away with brutally beating the female they attacked.

Oh yeah, the sheriff got reelected even after his son's repeated outragous behavior. The sheriff's mother-in-law is VERY wealthy.

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

The power corrupts some of the LEs, it puts extra weight on the good LEs. Yes there are some good LEs. The ones in this story are VERY BAD LEs. In our town, most LEs are very professional, but there is one arrogant dogcatcher who thinks he is God. Sad.

Robby Scott Hill said...

That's why I don't leave the house without protection.
The Rifleman's Creed
This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will...
My rifle and I know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit...
My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will...
Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.
So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy, but peace!