A former jail guard who beat an inmate so severely that he lost his spleen was awarded additional pension benefits Monday when a judge ruled that job stress contributed to his psychiatric disability.
Because of the ruling, James J. Piersante will receive half the estimated $2,000 a month he was earning in 1982, when he last worked for the county.
Piersante assaulted inmate William E. Hinch in a stairwell at the Orange County Jail. Hinch's spleen was ruined in the attack, and Piersante was convicted of assault by a jury a year later and placed on probation.
Attorneys for the county urged Orange County Superior Court Commissioner Ronald L. Bauer to affirm the county retirement board's 1985 decision that Piersante deserved regular retirement benefits not related to his job. Those benefits amounted to one-third of Piersante's last rate of pay.
But attorney Seth J. Kelsey, representing Piersante, argued that the guard realized stress was a problem and several times requested a transfer before the assault occurred.
"By putting him in that jail for 13 years, they really exposed him to a situation that caused his disability," Kelsey said.
A psychiatrist who interviewed Piersante wrote that the guard said that he was being "squeezed" between the hostility of inmates and the "lack of support" from the Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail.
Piersante "popped like a cork" from the stress, the psychiatrist's report concluded.
At his 1983 trial, Piersante testified that Hinch, a drug suspect, was "yelling and screaming and kicking at the walls." Piersante said Hinch was to be moved for a court appearance but attacked the guard when he came within range.
Hinch testified that Piersante attacked him without hesitation, "like a madman." Hinch said that he was punched repeatedly and that when he dropped to the ground, Piersante kicked him.
Piersante is the only sheriff's deputy ever convicted of assaulting an inmate at the Orange County Jail facility, which opened in 1968.
One of Piersante's biggest worries was the effect of inmate overcrowding on discipline and security in the jail, the psychiatrist's report said.
Crowding has been a key element in a federal lawsuit that led to contempt citations against county supervisors and Sheriff Brad Gates. The jail is under court-ordered limits on inmate population.
Hinch sued the county but was paid an undisclosed sum in a settlement.
Monday's decision by Commissioner Bauer requires the county retirement board to reclassify Piersante's disability as "service related," which automatically increases his benefits.
Piersante, 53, was fired after the incident. He now works part time. His wife is employed, Kelsey said. They have five adult children.
"For (Piersante), it's more than money," Kelsey said. "It gives a little bit back to him psychologically. He lost a job, went through the humiliation of a criminal trial. I think at this point he probably will find a little more peace of mind."