Montgomery officer not guilty in baton assault on unarmed teenager

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 10:30 PM

A Montgomery County police officer was found not guilty of assault Wednesday after jurors weighed emotional testimony from the officer about how and why he struck a 15-year-old, unarmed suspect on the head with a metal baton 11 months ago.

"All of the sudden he's bleeding from the head," Officer George Saoutis said Tuesday on the witness stand in the second day of a three-day trial.

Saoutis broke off his remarks for 15 seconds to compose himself, and explained how he hit the teenager while swinging at the suspect's raised arm to try to knock it down and handcuff him. Hitting the teen's head was an accident, he said.

Saoutis's testimony was part of his attorney's broader efforts to portray him as the kind of policeman needed by the jurors and other Montgomery citizens.

"You know what he is guilty of?" defense attorney James Shalleck said in his opening statement, looking into the jury box. "He's guilty of being an aggressive, caring protector of you and I. He's an active officer who is on the streets trying to protect us. And do things happen in the heat of these things? Yes they do. It's not a perfect world. Nobody's perfect. Things happen. And this was an unfortunate incident."

Saoutis, 39, let out an audible sigh when the verdict was announced about 5 p.m., after three hours of deliberations.

"We're just hoping we can get everything back to normal," his wife, Wendy, said afterward.

Part of that means trying to get back his assignment on the Montgomery force. Saoutis is on administrative leave. He declined to comment.

"We are disappointed but respect the jury's verdict," said prosecutor Robert Hill, declining to comment further.

Hill's case rested in part on the testimony of the 15-year-old victim, who required seven or eight staplelike stitches to close his head wound. The prosecution also called others who were at the scene and Saoutis's fellow officers. Hill established that Saoutis told a series of lies in the week after the incident. Saoutis eventually admitted what he did, but said it was accidental.

Saoutis, at 6-foot-3, with a shaved head and lanky, 175-pound frame, took the witness stand at noon Tuesday wearing a dark suit and light-green tie.

Shalleck asked about his family and whether he had children.

"I do. I have four kids: 2, 4," he said, pausing for five seconds. "Sorry, this is kind of emotional. Okay, I'm back. Two, 4, 6 and 8."

Saoutis outlined his history: graduate of Rockville High School; some college; joined the Marine Corps in 1991 and served seven years; entered the retail business; worked in the Metro Transit Police in Washington. About three years ago, he joined the Montgomery force.

"As an officer, I am very active," he said.

On March 3, he and two other officers responded to a call of vandalism outside an arts school in Wheaton. They couldn't find anything, but Saoutis continued to look, even driving his car over a curb to check out an area near a large storage container.

As he pulled up to it, a small group of teenagers burst out, running in different directions.

"I jumped out and I immediately deployed my ASP," Saoutis said, using the trade name of a telescoping, tactical baton. "It's a great deterrent."

Saoutis chased one of the fleeing teenagers along Georgia Avenue and behind businesses, a thin alley and a field, eventually ending up by the arts school, where he saw that the teenager had slowed to a walk.

"He was a lot faster than me," Saoutis said.

The officer approached him at an angle.

Hill, the prosecutor, stressed to jurors that what the officer did next made him guilty of assault for either of two reasons: He intentionally hit the victim over the head or he was reckless in using his baton.

The officer testified that the teenager's left hand was near his waist. The teenager's right hand was raised, Saoutis said.

"So you lunged to hit his hand. Did you hit his arm?" Shalleck asked his client.

"No," Saoutis said.

"What did you hit?"

"His head."

"Did you intend to hit his head?"

"No," Saoutis said.

On cross-examination, Hill fired back.

"You could have simply grabbed him," the prosecutor said.

"That's what I did," Saoutis said.

"No, you didn't."

"Yes, I did."

"Well," Hill said, "you hit him in the head with an ASP, right?"

"That was accidental."

Saoutis dismissed the notion that he was angry about the chase and that he punished the teenager for it. In his testimony, he said, "We work in an environment where, obviously, if we take action, a split-second action, it gets picked apart."

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