JURY DEADLOCKED 9-3 FOR ACQUITTAL IN POLICE CIVIL RIGHTS CASE
US District Judge Ishii declared a mistrial after only 5 hours of deliberation when the jury became hopelessly deadlocked, 9 for acquittal, 3 against, in the Federal criminal civil rights case against four Fresno police officers Chris Coleman, Paul Van Dalen, Sean Plymale and Michael Manfredi. Federal prosecutors from Washington D.C., out of the Department of Justice, indicted the officers for civil rights violations and obstruction of justice arising from the October 10, 2005 arrest of Mr. Rolando Celedon.
THE OFFICERS ARREST CELEDON
This case started with the 911 call from Ms. Veronica Rivera on October 10, 2005. Ms. Rivera called Fresno PD dispatch requesting help because her then boyfriend, Celedon, was attempting to break in to her apartment. Before officers arrived, Celedon was able to break into Veronica’s apartment and strike her a number of times. Officers arrived and Celedon fled. After a brief search, Celedon was located by Officer Plymale and his canine Tymo. Plymale made contact with Celedon and requested he sit on a nearby curb. While Celedon initially complied, he quickly got up and ran from Officer Plymale. Officer Plymale and Tymo gave chase and Tymo quickly caught Celedon. Celedon hesitated for a moment but then began climbing a tall chain link and barbed wire fence. Officer Plymale gave the bite command and Tymo locked onto Cledeon’s lower leg. Incredibly, Celedon was able to pull Tymo over the fence and into the Wawona fruit packing facility yard. He then began fighting with the canine. A winded Officer Plymale arrived on foot and shot Celedon with the taser. The taser had no affect on Celedon. Officer Coleman then arrived and was updated quickly by Officer Plymale. Officer Plymale climbed the fence and Celedon immediately struck Plymale in the face. Officer Plymale yelled out in pain thinking he had just broken his right hand from hitting Celedon. In the course of the next minute or so, Celedon continued to fight with Tymo and disregarded numerous officer’s commands to raise his hands above his head. Officer Coleman shot Celedon about four times with a less lethal bean bag shotgun. Officer Van Dalen was the next officer to jump over the fence. He kicked Celedon one or two times to gain his compliance. While this was going on, various other officers from the department stood on the safe side of the fence and essentially watched the action.
Officer Coleman got into the patrol car to drive around to a nearby gate and was able to enter the fruit packing yard. Celedon finally complied with officer’s commands by raising his hands and rolling over where he was safely handcuffed by Officer Van Dalen. Celedon was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation and was released within approximately one hour.
Officer Coleman finished the call thinking that, aside from Officer Plymale’s injured hand, the arrest went well. Celedon had been taken into custody with minimal injuries and the victim Veronica Rivera was safe.
Over the course of the next couple of days, officers began preparing and submitting reports regarding the arrest. Officer Coleman initially wrote a draft report on the Department’s computerized report writing system. By preparing a draft he could save it and finish it later after he had a chance to speak with other officers on the scene and verify various facts. After he wrote his draft report, Officer Coleman was able to speak at length with Officer Plymale about the incident. Based on that conversation, he went back a few hours later and made substantial changes to the content of his draft report. Officer Plymale also wrote a draft and then edited his own report. Officer Van Dalen was only able to write a draft report before the investigation started. Sgt. Manfredi wrote the use of force reporting document that the Department required.
Unbeknownst to officers Coleman, Plymale, Van Dalen and Sgt. Manfredi, one officer on the scene who had largely observed a portion of the incident filed a complaint with the Department alleging that officers used excessive force during the arrest of Celedon. The complaint came as a complete shock to the arresting officers in that other than Officer Plymale’s injured hand, the felony suspect Mr. Celedon was taken into custody without serious injury to the victim Veronica Rivera. In addition, Mr. Celedon only suffered cuts and bruises, but no significant injury. The Department’s internal affairs division notified officers Coleman, Plymale, Van Dalen and Sgt. Manfredi that they were under investigation, the report writer system was frozen and the officers were not allowed further access to their reports. From this point, a lengthy internal affairs investigation began that resulted in disciplinary action and appeals. In addition, the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office conducted its own independent investigation for approximately one year. It declined to file any criminal charges against any of the officers involved.
THE FEDERAL GRAND JURY
More than four years after the arrest of Celedon, the Federal Government assembled a Grand Jury to review the case. For those of you familiar with Grand Juries, especially Federal Grand Juries, the prosecutors can essentially direct the Grand Jury in any direction they like. Defense lawyers are not allowed to attend; there is no cross examination or any form of competing information presented to the Grand Jury. Just a matter of days before the 5 year statute of limitations ran out, the Grand Jury indicted Officer Coleman with 2 counts of civil rights violations (excessive force) and one count of obstruction of justice (false reporting). Officer Van Dalen was indicted with 2 counts of civil right violations and one count of obstruction of justice. Officer Plymale was indicted with a count of obstruction of justice and a count of misprision of felony (essentially hiding the fact that a felony occurred). Sgt. Manfredi was indicted with one count of obstruction of justice and one count of misprision of felony. Based on the indictment, Officer Coleman faced up to 20 years in prison. The other officers faced similar penalties.
GETTING READY FOR TRIAL
One factor that often goes unnoticed is the time, effort and expense involved in properly preparing for a complicated Federal trial. The officer’s association, the Fresno Police Officers Association (POA), did not belong to the Police Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) legal defense fund as of October 10, 2005. While the POA supported the officers throughout the entire disciplinary process, including all appeals, it had exhausted all its available resources by the time the Federal Government indicted Coleman and the other officers. As such, the officers were left to fend for themselves related to their own criminal defense. The cost of defense added to the already extraordinary and difficult burden officers faced in dealing with the Federal indictment.
Trial preparation lasted over a year and a half with a variety of disputes ranging from discovery disputes to pre-trial motions. The trial started on January 8, 2013.
The trial lasted a full 5 weeks. Officers Coleman and Plymale and Sgt. Manfredi testified in their defense. Two expert witnesses, including Don Cameron, were called to testify regarding the use of force standards and the training the officers received. Both experts testified about the use of force options that were available to each officer during the incident. Both experts offered opinions that no officer committed any form of excessive force.
After the close of evidence arguments, the case was delivered to the jury. Several jurors reported to this author that from the very beginning 2 jurors had indicated that they would simply refused to deliberate. They both declared that all defendants were guilty on all counts and would not be persuaded. When other jurors argued that they were required to deliberate and consider the evidence count by count, officer by officer, the 2 jurors essentially refused. Had this fact become known to lawyers for the officers before Judge Ishii declared a mistrial, a motion to recuse the 2 problematic jurors could have been made. Notwithstanding, the jury was hopelessly deadlocked and it was clear to all jurors that a unanimous decision could not be reached.
The parties return for a status conference on Monday, March 18, 2013. At that time, Officer Coleman and the other officers are hopeful the Federal Government will announce that it does not intend to proceed further. Until that time, the officers can only wait.