Benjamin Brownlee rocked in his chair and betrayed little emotion on Tuesday as he learned that a jury had found him guilty of murdering and robbing a homeless woman last year under a freeway overpass in Sacramento.
Brownlee, 28, faces a life sentence without possibility of parole for strangling Sharen Brandow, 69, and stealing some of her possessions, including her California identification card and Social Security documents. The jury found that the prosecution failed to prove rape charges against him.
The trial pulled back a curtain on the dangers and struggles for survival in Sacramento’s homeless community. Among those who testified were a heroin addict who injected drugs in the campsite where Brandow was killed and a felon who slept in the same area, under the Highway 99 freeway overpass near Broadway and Alhambra boulevards.
It featured a hero, Jose Ramirez, a stranger who offered food and kindness to Brandow on the last afternoon of her life and discovered her body face down in the dirt the next day. Ramirez, who roamed the Sacramento Superior Court hallways each day of the trial, got to meet Brandow’s estranged family, who found out about her death when they read a newspaper article about the case.
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Brownlee, who had been homeless off and on after moving to Sacramento from New York in 2015, had crossed paths with Brandow but testified that he never knew her. More than a month after she was killed in August 2016, he told detectives that he had choked her in a fit of violence until her eyes rolled back into her head and her face turned “beet” red. He later recanted those statements and said he confessed only because he preferred jail to living on the streets.
No fingerprints or genetic profiles linked Brownlee to Brandow. Prosecutor Robin Shakely built her case primarily on Brownlee’s confession, a history of violence including an attack on a woman in New York when he was a teenager, and items found in a backpack given to police by a former girlfriend of the defendant. The items included Brownlee’s clothing and glasses, as well as Brandow’s documents.
“He is the killer,” Shakely said in her closing argument Monday.
Jurors deliberated Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning before returning the verdict.
“I’m glad the jury was able to connect the same dots that the prosecutor did,” said Brandow’s daughter, Kathy Byars, who had not seen her mother in years and learned of her death from a newspaper article about the trial. “I was not that close to my mom because of her circumstances. But I would not wish that kind of death on anyone. I’m glad justice was served, and that he’s not going to be out there to hurt someone else.”
Defense attorney Alan Whisenand briefly laid a hand on Brownlee’s shoulder as a court clerk announced the verdict Tuesday morning. He said later that he intends to appeal.
“We thought that the evidence was so circumstantial,” Whisenand said. The backpack containing Brandow’s things “was never established as being Mr. Brownlee’s” other than by a former girlfriend, with whom he had a volatile relationship, he said.
Brownlee’s statements to police “were not established to be truthful,” he said. “They were the statements of a clinically depressed, desperate young man” who concocted a story so that he could have a roof over his head, food and regular medical care.
Ramirez cried tears of relief after learning that Brownlee had been convicted. He said the case “shined a little more light on this homeless situation in Sacramento, which is tragic.
“The man who did this to Sharen needs to be locked away,” he added. “I know God is going to take care of this.”