Police Officer Convicted Of Assaulting 4 Teens

By Ruben Castaneda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 3, 2007

A Prince George's County jury yesterday convicted a county police corporal of assaulting four teenagers when he pepper-sprayed them last year, marking the first time in at least 12 years that a Prince George's officer has been convicted in state court for law enforcement-related use of force.

Cpl. Sheldon Vessels, 37, a 14-year veteran of the force, was convicted of four counts of second-degree assault in connection with an incident that occurred last year in the Landover area.

Vessels testified that even though he was on non-duty status at the time, he stopped the teenagers at the request of a gas station manager, who said some of them were harassing him and his customers. He said that he displayed his police badge during the encounter and used a police-issued pepper spray canister.

A minister, the Rev. Clarence L. Joyner of Carmody Hills Baptist Church, witnessed the encounter and called police.

Vessels testified that he drove his personal vehicle, a black Cadillac Escalade, into a Shell gas station off Route 202 about 5:30 p.m. March 16. A manager, who knew Vessels was a police officer, said a group of teenagers had stolen from the station store and harassed customers, Vessels testified.

When Vessels arrived, most of the teenagers ran, but four stayed.

The teenagers testified that Vessels ordered them to sit down, then pepper-sprayed each of them. He also hit one teenager in the head with the spray canister and kicked another in the groin, the teenagers said.

Vessels testified he used one burst of spray when one of the teens didn't follow orders to remove his hands from his pockets.

A juror, who declined to give his name because he wanted to maintain his privacy, said the testimony of a civilian witness, Jervie Guinyard, was crucial, because Guinyard supported the teenagers' account.

As the verdict was read, Vessels tilted his head down, closed his eyes and clasped his hands.

His attorney, George G. Tankard III, said neither he nor Vessels had any comment.

Vessels was suspended with pay in December 2005 because he failed to qualify on the shooting range. Cpl. Clinton Copeland, a police spokesman, said an internal affairs investigation into Vessels's employment and pay status will be conducted.

Circuit Court Judge Cathy H. Serrette scheduled sentencing for April 11. The maximum sentence for second-degree assault is 10 years in prison, but it is unlikely Vessels would be incarcerated for a first offense.

A member of a group of residents that advocates for reform of the county police force praised State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey.

"This is truly historic, for an officer to be convicted of this sort of crime," said Redmond Barnes of the People's Coalition for Police Accountability.

Ivey's predecessor as state's attorney, Jack B. Johnson, prosecuted 11 police officers for excessive force and other forms of misconduct during two terms as the county's chief prosecutor. None of the cases ended in a conviction. Johnson is now county executive.

Ivey complimented the work of Assistant State's Attorney Joseph Wright, who prosecuted Vessels, and police internal affairs investigators.

"I didn't get any negative feedback from any police officer about this case," Ivey said. "They want bad officers off the street."

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