Trial investigates excessive force by Fresno police
By Pablo Lopez – The Fresno Bee
A federal criminal trial that begins today will explore whether Fresno police officers used excessive force arresting a domestic-violence suspect seven years ago and then tried to cover it up.
Sgt. Michael Manfredi and former Fresno police officers Paul Van Dalen, Chris Coleman and Sean Plymale are charged in U.S. District Court with civil-rights violations and obstruction of justice charges.
Police reports say the suspect, Rolando Celdon, was punched, kicked, bitten by a police dog and shot with a less-lethal shotgun in October 2005.
Defense attorneys say the defendants are innocent of the charges and that they had to use force because Celdon refused to surrender.
“It was a textbook arrest,” attorney Paul Goyette, who is defending Coleman, said Wednesday. “They were doing their jobs.”
The case is another chapter in a long-running controversy over whether the Fresno Police Department uses excessive force when tangling with suspects.
A year ago, city officials agreed to pay $1.3 million to the family of an unarmed man killed by police in October 2009 as well as make key changes to department policies involving officer-involved shootings. The agreement ended a legal battle with the family of Steven Anthony Vargas, who was killed by Sgt. Mike Palomino. A federal jury had found that Palomino used excessive and unreasonable force in the incident.
While Palomino was tried in civil court, Manfredi, Coleman, Van Dalen and Plymale face criminal charges and could go to prison for up to 20 years if convicted.
Coleman and Van Dalen are each charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law. An indictment accuses Coleman of using a 12-gauge shotgun to repeatedly shoot Celdon with less-than-lethal ammunition. Coleman also is charged with driving a speeding patrol car at Celdon.
Van Dalen is accused of repeatedly kicking Celdon at least twice in the upper body and stepping on his ankle.
Plymale and Manfredi are each charged with concealing the alleged assault by Coleman and Van Dalen. All four defendants are charged with one count of falsifying an official report to obstruct justice.
Before jury selection begins next week, both sides will haggle today in Judge Anthony Ishii’s courtroom over whether prosecutors can bring up two nicknames Van Dalen earned after Celdon’s arrest on Oct. 10, 2005.
Van Dalen was nicknamed “Place kicker Paul,” a reference to him kicking Celdon at least two times, prosecutors said in court papers.
Prosecutors also allege that the defendants laughed and called Van Dalen “Paul Van Walnuts” after he spread Celdon’s legs and encouraged Coleman to shoot Celdon in the testicles.
Defense lawyers contend the nicknames, if allowed as evidence, would unfairly taint a jury against the defendants. They also contend the nicknames aren’t relevant to what happened to Celdon.
Though “loathsome conduct,” attorney Harry Stern, who is representing Van Dalen, wrote in court papers, “the jury should focus on the relevant circumstances of Celdon’s arrest.”
Police reports say Celdon’s girlfriend had called police after he broke into her southeast Fresno apartment and attacked her.
In interviews with investigators, Celdon said he ran from officers because he was afraid of the police dog. Police reports say he also told officers he had ingested methamphetamine, but toxicology reports later showed he was not under the influence.
On the eve of the trial, defense attorneys poked holes in the prosecution’s conduct.
Goyette, Coleman’s attorney, said the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office and state Attorney General’s Office declined to file charges. A federal civil rights unit out of Washington, D.C., filed charges five years after the incident — barely within the statute of limitations, he said.
“They have no oversight and unlimited authority and unlimited taxpayers’ money,” Goyette said.
Defense lawyers also say prosecutors aren’t playing fairly because they have asked for more than a year to interview Celdon. After his plea, Celdon was deported to Mexico but stayed in contact with authorities.
Prosecutors say Celdon will be a witness in the trial.
“All of the witnesses who will be providing testimony about the incident involving the victim will be available for cross-examination at trial,” said Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Horwood also said it is not unusual for Washington to get involved.
“The U.S. Department of Justice has a long tradition of prosecuting such cases,” she said.