As she entered the courthouse where her mother’s killer was about to be sentenced on Friday afternoon, Kathy Byars cradled a light blue and yellow Hallmark gift box.
Inside were the remains of her mother, Sharen Brandow, who was choked to death more than a year ago while she was living homeless under a Sacramento freeway.
“I thought she should be here,” Byars said, as a sort of silent witness to Benjamin Brownlee’s punishment. A few minutes later, Brownlee was condemned to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Following a trial that pulled back a curtain on the sometimes dangerous and desperate underworld that is Sacramento’s homeless community, Brownlee, 28, was convicted in August of strangling Brandow, 69, to death in a fit of rage after an argument with a girlfriend.
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Brownlee on Friday again denied harming Brandow, and suggested that the girlfriend set him up to be convicted of the crime by planting some of Brandow’s possessions in his backpack. He initially confessed to the killing, but later retracted his remarks, saying he lied so that he could go to jail and get off of the streets. Brownlee had been homeless in Sacramento since moving to the area after getting out of prison in New York in 2015.
The lack of DNA evidence in the case “shows I’m innocent,” he told Judge Donald J. Currier on Friday.
Currier was unconvinced. The murder, he said, “was savage and cruel,” and “I think the jury made the right decision.”
Brandow’s relatives, who learned of her death when they read newspaper accounts of the trial, on Friday shed further light on the life of a woman who previously had been largely a mystery.
A kind stranger, Jose Ramirez, found her body at her chosen sleeping spot under the Highway 99 freeway near Broadway and Alhambra on an August morning in 2016. The previous day, he had brought her food and a cold drink. County officials said they were unable to locate Brandow’s relatives.
Byars told her mother’s story in a statement she directed mostly to Brownlee. She said her mother was married twice, both times to men who physically abused her and her two children. After becoming single, Brandow raised Byars and her brother, Lee, while trying to make ends meet as a waitress. The family moved frequently, living mostly in cheap hotels, she said, and Byars and her brother “ran the streets” unsupervised.
Her brother ended up behind bars at age 15, and died in his 20s, she said. Byars spent time in group homes and foster care. She is now married, has a daughter and lives in Fair Oaks.
Her mother was originally from Southern California, the oldest of five children. She displayed a strong work ethic and “great personal strength,” said Byars, despite suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. “Sharen worked all her life until she physically couldn’t do it anymore,” and had been transient for decades, living off of her small Social Security checks. Her sister, Janice Mathews of Concord, said she had not seen Sharen since 1980.
“She was fiercely independent,” Byars said. “She was valued, and very much loved even when she herself couldn’t love us back.”
She urged Brownlee, who has a young child, to face up to his crime and “try to be a better person,” even while he is locked up. She said she forgave him.
“Do you want your son to see a more loving legacy from his father, or see and then follow the path to violence?” she asked.
Brownlee, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, leaned closely into his lawyer’s shoulder, whispering in his ear, and appeared unmoved by her remarks.
After sheriff’s deputies took Brownlee away, his victim’s family members lingered in the courtroom hallway. Before they left, they exchanged hugs with Brownlee’s mother, Nicole, who flew in from New York for the hearing.
“They’re hurting too,” Mathews said of Brownlee’s family.
Nicole Brownlee said she came to Sacramento to talk about her son’s difficult history, which has included mental illness and incarceration. But Currier told her the court does not allow family members of criminal defendants to make such statements.
“I had him at 17,” she said after the hearing. She became homeless when she was a young mother, she said, but later “made something of myself” and had hoped to steer her son in the same direction. She advised him against going to California, she said. She urged him to allow her to help him get mental health treatment and job counseling in New York. But he left, hoping to start a new life in Sacramento.
“Then, I find out he is charged with murder,” she said.