Saturday, August 4, 2012

Jordan Miles jury ponders complexities - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

To supporters of Jordan Miles, the civil trial stemming from his 2010 encounter with Pittsburgh police boiled down to a simple question: Why did a high school kid who had never been in trouble, and was walking from his mother's house to his grandmother's house, end up in handcuffs with a head swollen like a basketball?

Something, they said, must have gone horribly wrong, and the fault logically lay with the large, armed, trained officers rather than with the quiet high school viola player.

Attorneys for officers Richard Ewing, Michael Saldutte and David Sisak, though, spent much of the three-week trial putting the eight jurors into the minds of the three officers.

The three worked plainclothes duty combating drugs and guns in crime-plagued Homewood. What should the officers have done, their attorneys asked the eight jurors, when they saw a dark figure hanging out between two houses at 11 p.m. on a bitterly cold night, and asked him a few questions only to have him run while seeming to guard a gun?

The jury wrestled with those competing narratives Thursday afternoon and all day Friday, and will continue deliberating Monday, reflecting the complexity of those questions.

Rather than a simple equation -- police plus injury to nice kid equals civil rights violation -- the three-week trial proved to be a textbook example of the difficulty of second-guessing law enforcement in court.

Ultimately, it seemed to turn less on the dramatic photos of Mr. Miles' swollen face that made the case a cause celebre, than on backroom battles and subtle strengths and weaknesses in the two sides' competing narratives.

A diverse jury

The trial pitted a 20-year-old African-American man against three white officers in their early 30s.

Federal juries are drawn from the entire southwestern corner of the state, meaning the pool skews white and old. The jury pool of 60 people included just three African-Americans, and the defense had the right to strike any six of the final 20 pool members, so Mr. Miles' legal team had reason to expect an all-white panel.

The defense tried to strike the lone African-American among the 20 finalists. But Mr. Miles' attorneys successfully filed what's called a Batson challenge. That invoked a ruling in a 1986 case that potential jurors can't be stricken from the pool solely because of race.

The black juror, middle-aged and always dressed in a jacket and tie, stayed on the jury that otherwise includes four white men and three white women. Whether his presence will affect the decision remains to be seen.

U.S. District Chief Judge Gary L. Lancaster made it clear to the jurors from day one that they would have to base their conclusions on "what an objectively reasonable police officer would have believed or concluded."

The plaintiff's team instead consistently tried to put the jurors into the mind of Mr. Miles, "a soft-spoken, mannered, respectable and kind young man," as one of his attorneys, J. Kerrington Lewis, put it in his opening. It was, at times, a powerful approach: "He started praying. ... He thought he was going to be killed or taken away," Mr. Lewis said.

But the defense hewed faithfully to the judge's instructions. "You don't know what it is to act objectively given the facts and circumstances" police face on the street, said attorney Bryan Campbell, who represented Officer Saldutte. He and his legal teammates took the jurors through what amounted to a Police Procedures 101 course in identifying trouble, regulating the use of force and charging a suspect. They included a refresher course in their lengthy closing arguments.

Mr. Lewis' closing ignored the judge's admonition to view events through an officer's eyes, going right back to Mr. Miles' perspective. His client, he said, "said to me, 'Mr. Lewis, I don't want to hurt these police officers, but I want justice.' "

Throwing stones

The plaintiff's team made no bones about vilifying the officers. They were fighting machines who jumped from a car demanding that Mr. Miles show them guns, drugs and money, and then crafting a "phony" police report when the encounter went bad, according to Mr. Lewis.

The defense countered by presenting the officers' bios. Officer Sisak was a former guidance counselor for adjudicated youth. Officer Ewing was a Marine who faced combat in Iraq.

The defense had the delicate job of discrediting Mr. Miles' witnesses without appearing to demean them, and handled that adroitly -- usually.

When Terez Miles, the plaintiff's mother, testified, she was cross-examined by attorney Robert Leight, representing Officer Ewing. Mr. Leight made sure the jury knew she had never married and had a General Equivalency Diploma and didn't graduate high school. When she talked in detail about the new coat her son wore on the night of the encounter, Mr. Leight asked: "Have you ever worked as a seamstress?"

Tim Stevens, chairman of the Black Political Empowerment Project, heard that cross-examination and said he was "offended. ... I thought it was an effort to discredit her as a human being."

Wooding a wash

One of the mysteries of the case is why officers wrote in their report that Monica Wooding, in front of whose rented home the incident began, didn't know Mr. Miles, but her testimony at his preliminary hearing was the opposite. Given suggestions that she changed her story to help Mr. Miles beat the charges against him, her credibility was in question.

Attorneys for the officers wanted to cross-examine her about her 1990s guilty pleas to simple assault and marijuana possession. Mr. Miles' attorneys argued that the convictions were too old and the crimes didn't reflect her honesty. Judge Lancaster barred mention of the convictions.

Her testimony, though, cut both ways.

She backed Mr. Miles' account by saying he was already in the police wagon when she looked out her bedroom window at the officers below.

But she also said Officer Sisak had snow on the back of his jacket, supporting his claim that Mr. Miles felled him with a kick.

Chief backs men

Mr. Miles' team called city police Chief Nate Harper, hoping he would repeat his deposition testimony that the officers should have preserved, as evidence, a Mountain Dew bottle they said they found in the plaintiff's coat. Instead, the chief said that the bottle wasn't evidence of a crime and would properly be discarded.

The chief also torpedoed one of the plaintiff's most determined lines of attack.

Mr. Miles told internal affairs investigators that the officers said, "Where's the gun? Where's the money? Where's the drugs?" Mr. Lewis argued that Mr. Miles couldn't have known that city officers used those terms unless they used them on him.

When Mr. Lewis asked Chief Harper how many officers use that greeting with suspects, though, the answer was deflating: "To my knowledge, none."

All in the family

Mr. Lewis implied a bottom-to-top conspiracy to whitewash the incident, and he bolstered that story line by portraying the Police Bureau as a tight-knit clique.

When the officers called city Officer David C. Wright, a use-of-force instructor, Mr. Lewis noted that he owns a gym where Officer Saldutte teaches Israeli martial arts in return for free use of the facilities. When the defense called Sgt. Charles Henderson, co-counsel Timothy O'Brien noted that he moonlights providing security for Highmark, and has paid officers Saldutte and Ewing to do off-duty work for the insurer.

A foundation was built for Mr. Lewis' closing argument that as bad as events that night may have been, the cover-up was worse. Did the jury buy it? We may know Monday.

Total recall

Mr. Miles claimed brain injury resulting in, among other things, memory loss. But he also had to testify that he had detailed recollections of at least portions of the encounter with the officers. For his attorneys, the issue of memory made for a tricky balancing act, and for the defense it was an easy line of attack.

Attorney James Wymard, representing Officer Sisak, made the most of the memory question by comparing small details of Mr. Miles' testimony with his earlier accounts to investigators. Mr. Wymard asked Mr. Miles whether his memory would have been better in 2010 than now.

"On certain things, [my memory] did get better," Mr. Miles said.

"Your memory is getting better now," Mr. Wymard said, his voice soaked with skepticism.

"I remember things now that I didn't then," Mr. Miles said. All of the attorneys involved agreed that it's hard to read a jury.

Their decision could turn on physical evidence like the hair from Mr. Miles' head that was found in a bush, backing the officers' account, or the cell phone record that plaintiffs say proves the young man is telling the truth.

No matter what decision is reached, the lengthy trial and deliberations prove that even if a picture like the one that made Mr. Miles famous is worth a thousand words, three weeks worth of words can really change the focus.

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