Judge: Student’s injuries not sufficient for first-degree assault charge in taped beating

October 17, 2012

A judge threw out first-degree assault charges Wednesday against two Prince George’s County police officers caught on video beating an unarmed University of Maryland student during a raucous celebration after a basketball game in 2010, essentially ruling that the student’s injuries did not warrant the charge.

As prosecutors closed their case against officers Reginald Baker and James Harrison, Circuit Court Judge Beverly J. Woodard ruled that jurors should not consider the first-degree assault charge, granting a defense motion for an acquittal on that count.

Jurors will be allowed to consider charges of second-degree assault and misconduct in office against the officers. Second-degree assault carries a 10-year maximum sentence, and the law does not spell out a prison term for misconduct in office, said a spokesman for the Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office.

Woodard said prosecutors had not presented evidence that John McKenna, then a 21-year-old U-Md. student, had suffered “serious and permanent injuries” or that the officers intended to inflict such injuries.

“There’s been no permanency,” Woodard said. “He recovered from his head injury.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Ruddy argued that he needed to show only that Baker and Harrison intended to cause serious physical harm, and he said the roughly 12 blows they collectively delivered to McKenna while he was on the ground were evidence of that. He said McKenna suffered a concussion that could have lasting effects.

Ruddy said video showed that Baker and Harrison had struck McKenna on the head. Woodard disputed that, noting that the prosecution’s own expert testified that he saw only body blows. The judge said the concussion — the seriousness of which she questioned — could have been caused when McKenna was struck with a riot shield, which the prosecution’ expert said was reasonable conduct.

Baker provided his first public remarks about the incident Wednesday, offering a version of events intended to portray him as a sympathetic figure.

From his perspective, Baker testified, the student skipping toward him — fists clenched and arms flailing — was unquestionably a threat.

After he forced McKenna to the ground with his riot shield, he said, he clubbed the student with a baton because he could not see what McKenna had in his hands.

“In my mind, I don’t know if he has something in his hands or not,” Baker testified Wednesday.

Prosecutors have said Baker and Harrison went too far in striking McKenna repeatedly after he was forced to the ground.

Baker testified Wednesday that he was not ashamed of his actions and that his intent was to protect the mounted officers he was working with by bringing down a large, unruly man who refused to follow his and other officers’ orders.

“It’s a threat,” Baker testified of McKenna’s conduct.

The night of the incident, Baker testified, was “chaotic,” with students swearing at police officers and throwing bottles, rocks and chunks of ice after Maryland’s victory over Duke. A commander told officers beforehand they were to make arrests and adopt a “no tolerance” attitude, he said.

Clad in full riot gear as he helped push students off Knox Road and Route 1 several times, Baker testified, he became separated from his squad and did not know with whom he was working.

“I’m afraid,” Baker recalled. “I know officers don’t want to say it, but you’re afraid.”

As he stood behind a row of horses, Baker testified, he saw two people break from a crowd of revelers and come toward him. One backed off, he said, but the other — who turned out to be McKenna — raised his clenched fists and began swinging.

“He was running with his fists clenched and moving forward in a threatening position,” Baker testified. “I knew I had to get him before he got to the horses.”

Baker testified that he yelled for McKenna to “get down” and then slammed the student with his riot shield. With McKenna on the ground, Baker testified, he hit him with a baton four or five times as he yelled, “Open your hands.”

Confronted with video that shows McKenna’s hands on his head, Baker said he was not standing at an angle that allowed him to see the hands. Prosecutors also asked Baker about his failure to fill out a use-of-force report, as police policy requires, and he acknowledged that he had not done so.

Defense attorneys sought Wednesday to portray Baker as a good officer and good man, prompting him to talk about his wife, three children and service in the Marine Corps.

Colleagues and friends testified about his honesty, peacefulness and good reputation in the department.

Baker also testified that he knew he was being videotaped the night of the incident. It was not until after video was released to news outlets, about a month after the incident, that he and Harrison were suspended and later charged.

“It’s the modern age,” Baker testified. “We know that we’re being recorded all the time.”

Matt Zapotosky covers the federal district courthouse in Alexandria, where he tries to break news from a windowless office in which he is not allowed to bring his cell phone.
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