1 Pr. George’s officer acquitted, one convicted in U-Md. beating case

Video: This video, shot by another student, shows police beating the student without apparent provocation.

One of the two Prince George’s County police officers shown on video beating an unarmed University of Maryland student after a raucous basketball postgame celebration was acquitted Friday night of all charges against him. The other was convicted of second-degree assault.

After deliberating for nearly seven hours, a 12-member jury of Prince George’s County residents found Officer James Harrison Jr. guilty of second-degree assault for the taped March 2010 beating of student John McKenna, but not misconduct in office.

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They found Officer Reginald Baker not guilty of both charges.

Neither Harrison nor Baker reacted audibly as the verdict was read, and dozens of police officers and others in the courtroom sat in almost complete silence. As Baker stepped back from the defense table, he frowned slightly and glanced toward his convicted colleague, who stared straight ahead.

Harrison and his attorneys declined to comment after the hearing. Baker referred comment to defense attorney William Brennan, who said he was “very gratified” with the verdict that Baker was not guilty.

“We believed all along that he had not committed any crime and that he had served Prince George’s County to the best of his ability as a police officer,” Brennan said.

Baker and Harrison had been charged with second-degree assault and misconduct in office in the beating of McKenna, after the student’s attorneys released a video of the incident to local news outlets. At the officers’ trial this week, prosecutors and defense attorneys haggled over why that video did or did not show a police abuse of power.

After the trial, McKenna said he was “definitely glad that some justice has been done” but he hoped the Department of Justice would continue probing the case.

“There was a broader crime committed here, and it spans way further than two cops charged in this,” McKenna said. He declined to take questions.

Sources familiar with the case said the county had already agreed to pay McKenna a $2 million settlement and $1.6 million in settlements to nine others involved in incidents that night.

Though the jury delivered different verdicts for each man, Harrison and Baker were tried together on essentially the same case. Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Ruddy argued in court that both initially tried to hide their misdeeds in different ways, then tried to rationalize them once they learned they had been caught on tape. The video, Ruddy told jurors, was “the most important evidence in this case because it’s the independent witness.” And what it showed, Ruddy said, contradicted nearly everything Baker and Harrison said on the witness stand.

“They came up with justifications and reasons, most of which made no sense, most of which defy what you see,” Ruddy said.

The video shows Baker was the first officer to make contact with McKenna, driving him to the ground before he and Harrison began hitting him with their batons. After the verdict, Prince George’s State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said jurors might have drawn a distinction because a prosecution expert had said taking McKenna to the ground was reasonable, but clubbing him while he was prone was not.

David Simpson, an attorney for Harrison, had argued his client should not be held criminally responsible for four seconds of force and placed blame for the incident on McKenna, whom he termed a “criminal” because he unlawfully approached a police line.

“We’re not here because of the police officers,” Simpson said. “We’re here because of McKenna.”

In court, Ruddy said that both officers failed to fill out a use-of-force report, and that Harrison initially lied to an investigator about his role in the incident. He said that had video not captured the beating, the officers likely would have evaded detection.

“That’s why they did not report it, because that’s not justified,” Ruddy said. “Without that video, we would not have known how John McKenna was beaten.”

Brennan and Simpson said in court that the officers did not fill out a use-of-force report because a sergeant was on the scene of the incident and already knew about the use of the baton. Simpson acknowledged that Harrison initially lied to an investigator but said he came forward the next day and turned himself in. He said Harrison had been worried because he saw the police chief on TV, threatening to fire those involved.

Alsobrooks said the split verdict was a “victory” for prosecutors, as it showed they will not “stand by and watch” police officers use excessive force. She said she respected jurors’ decision on Baker, though she felt the charges were reasonable.

Harrison faces a maximum of 10 years in prison at his Dec. 14 sentencing. Brennan said Baker was hoping to return to work as a police officer.

Prince George’s Police Chief Mark Magaw said he respected the jury’s verdict. He said Harrison and Baker remain suspended with pay and would undergo administrative procedures to determine their future employment status.

 
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