The Washington Post

Attorneys: ‘What they went through the entire night’ key to officers’ defense in U-Md. beating case

Jurors in the criminal case against two Prince George’s County police officers caught on video beating a U-Md. student after a raucous basketball postgame celebration in 2010 will be allowed to see footage of other portions of the night, a judge ruled Friday.

In what might be a preview of the trial scheduled to begin Monday, defense attorneys for Officers Reginald Baker and James Harrison argued at a motions hearing in Prince George’s County Circuitthat jurors should not be limited to viewing video of the beating itself. Instead, they argued, they should see broader footage to put the night in context.

That footage — which depicts police efforts to control revelers’ riotous behavior — would help jurors determine the officers’ state of mind when they were caught on camera striking John McKenna with a nightstick as he lie on the ground, defense attorneys argued.

“It’s what these officers saw that night during the two hours they’re out having bottles thrown at them,” David Simpson, Harrison’s attorney, said in court. “It’s what they went through the entire night and what they were told about that night.”

Prosecutors had sought to block video — at least in opening statements — that showed anything other than the officers’ March 2010 encounter with McKenna, arguing such footage was irrelevant and would put the U-Md. student body on trial for its raucous behavior.

Judge Beverly Woodard ruled against them, saying the officers’ state of mind was pivotal to the case, and defense attorneys could at least show a two- to five-minute clip of another portion of the night in opening arguments.

“Their state of mind, you can’t isolate simply to the one encounter with Mr. McKenna,” Woodard said.

Baker and Harrison are charged with first-degree assault and other related counts in connection with the incident. Prosecutors have painted them as overzealous officers who brutally beat McKenna as he skipped toward them during a celebration in College Park after the U-Md. men’s basketball team defeated Duke.

Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Ruddy said in court Friday that McKenna himself was unaware of the celebration or police actions that night, having come from a house nearby .

Defense attorneys have countered that the officers had no way to separate McKenna’s actions from the sometimes violent students they had encountered earlier that evening while trying to clear the streets. His skipping near a horse, defense attorneys said Friday, posed a significant threat.

McKenna and another student were initially charged in connection with the incident, though those charges were later dropped.

“They don’t go after Mr. McKenna,” Simpson said in court Friday. ”Mr. McKenna approached them.”

Opening arguments and testimony are scheduled to begin Monday. A jury was selected for the case Thursday.

The officers remain suspended with pay.

This item has been updated.

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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