PITTSBURGH (AP) – Attorneys for a young Black man and the three White Pittsburgh police officers accused of wrongfully arresting and beating him disagreed on almost everything in closing arguments Thursday, including who was really the victim that frigid night four years ago.
Joel Sansone, the attorney for plaintiff Jordan Miles, said police “executed a little frontier justice” in the January 2010 encounter with Miles, then a dreadlocked 18-year-old student at the city’s performing arts high school, apparently because they assumed he was a drug dealer.
But Robert Leight, the attorney for officer Richard Ewing, who now works for a suburban police department, said his client and city officers David Sisak and Michael Saldutte are the victims.
“Jordan’s wounds have healed. He’s fine now,” Leight said, gesturing to photos of Miles swollen face and head, misshapen from the beating – which the officers contend was justified. “But these officers have continued to bear this perception that they’re bad cops, that they’re rogue cops.”
The all-White jury of four men and four women were to deliberate after legal instructions from U.S. District Judge David Cercone, and their eventual verdict may determine if the “rogue cop” label sticks – and how much money Miles deserves if it does.
Another jury two years ago rejected Miles’ claims that officers maliciously prosecuted him by filing assault, resisting arrest and other charges that were later dismissed. But that panel deadlocked on whether Miles was wrongfully arrested and whether police used excessive force, resulting in the retrial that began more than two weeks ago.
Miles contends he was merely talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone while walking a block to his grandmother’s house, where he routinely spent the night, when the plainclothes officers rolled up in an unmarked car about 11 p.m. asking for money, drugs and a gun without identifying themselves. Sansone and Miles’ other attorney, Robert Giroux, contend that tactic – which police denied using – is commonly known as a “jump out” and used to put suspected drug dealers on the defensive.
The officers have maintained they flashed badges and yelled “Police!” and stopped Miles only because he appeared to be lurking near a neighbor’s home. Saldutte testified Miles panicked and ran after being asked why he was “sneaking around” – and things escalated when Miles allegedly elbowed Saldutte in the head, then kicked Sisak in the knee, before officers mistook a “bulge” in Miles’ coat pocket for a gun.
The officers contend the bulge was caused by a bottle of Mountain Dew. Miles denies ever having a bottle of soda, which the officers say they threw away.
The bottle issue is one of several stark contrasts in the respective versions of that night’s events.
Another is the police claim that Sisak tackled Miles through a shrub, which neighbors saw was badly damaged and had two dreadlocks hanging from it the next morning.
Miles claims that never happened and that the twig wedged in his lip resulted from being beaten – while handcuffed and after his arrest – by a tree branch and, possibly, Sisak’s flashlight, which the officer testified he “lost” that night. The officers contend Miles was never beaten after he was cuffed, though they acknowledge punching and kneeing him as they struggled to cuff him and fought to keep Miles’ hands away from what they believed to be a gun.
Sansone argued the officers’ account of the “bulge” resulted from an “oh shoot moment,” when the officers realized Miles wasn’t an armed drug dealer and thought, “We didn’t find anything, what do we do now?”
But Saldutte’s attorney, Bryan Campbell, who also represents the city’s police union, said Miles – for the first time at this trial – acknowledged the officers asked him some questions other than demanding guns, drugs and money, supporting the officers’ version.
“My client is outraged. He’s been accused of basically being a rogue cop …” Campbell said, “and now we know that’s not true.”