Flanked by fellow officers, a shaken Boynton Beach Sgt. Philip Antico left the federal courthouse on Friday as a convicted felon, his roughly 15-year career in law enforcement in tatters.
After deliberating for 8½ hours over two days, a jury found the 37-year-old officer guilty of obstruction of justice for lying to FBI agents when they asked him if he helped officers change their reports to conceal what prosecutors called “a beat down” of three people in a car that had struck a fellow officer and led them on a 20-mile chase. They acquitted him of two charges of falsifying records in connection with the chaotic August 2014 arrest.
The verdict — which came after jurors twice told U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg that they were hopelessly deadlocked on one charge — is the second conviction to rock the department in eight days.
On Nov. 9, another federal jury convicted Officer Michael Brown of deprivation of rights under color of law and use of a firearm during a crime of violence in connection with the beating of 27-year-old unarmed Lake Worth resident Jeffrey Braswell, a passenger in the fleeing car. That jury acquitted two former officers, Ronald Ryan and Justin Harris, of wrongdoing in the incident, which was captured on videotape from a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office helicopter.
Showing jurors photos of the bloodied and bruised faces of Braswell and car driver Byron Harris, federal prosecutors during both trials pointed out that officers initially failed to report that they kicked and punched the two along with passenger Ashley Hill. It was only after they learned of the helicopter video that they changed their reports to cover their tracks, prosecutors said. And, they insisted, Antico helped them do it.
Still, both juries acquitted all four officers of falsifying reports. They found Brown used excessive force and had his service weapon in his hand when he punched Braswell. In Antico’s case, a different video — one of him meeting with the FBI — convinced jurors he lied to agents to help Brown and other officers.
No sentencing dates have been set for Brown and Antico, who are both free on bond.
Both men, who are fathers of school-age children, will continue to get paid by the department while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement begins proceedings to revoke their law enforcement certifications. The process, said FDLE spokesman Jeremy Burns, could take months.
Antico, who struggled to maintain his composure after the verdict Friday, declined comment as he left the courthouse. Jurors, some with tears in their eyes, said they didn’t want to discuss their deliberations.
While Antico faces a maximum 20-year sentence, five years more than Brown, his attorney, Gregg Lerman, said he plans to seek probation.
“People describe him as Spiderman, not because he climbs tall buildings, but because he felt his job was to be a superman for the community,” he said. “He doesn’t deserve to spend a day in jail. He was a good cop.”
John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association which is paying for the officers’ defense, vowed to appeal. “I’m hoping an appeals court sees right through this and gives our members a reprieve,” he said.
Calling the verdict “sad and disappointing,” Boynton Police Chief Jeffrey Katz said it will remind all police officers of the need to “exercise authority in a way as compassionate and judicious as possible.”
Kazanjian wasn’t as optimistic. “You try to go out and do your job. We’re trying to get bad guys off the street. And this is what we get?” he said. While police try to remain committed, he said the message is ominous: “Maybe I’m better doing nothing,” he said of a fear expressed by police throughout the county.
Lerman said the show of emotions by Antico, his former colleagues and the jurors reflected the thorny issues surrounding the case. Jurors clearly struggled to reach a verdict, he said.
Before leaving Thursday night, the panel of eight women and four men told Rosenberg they were hopelessly deadlocked on one charge, presumably the obstruction of justice count. On Friday, after deliberating for about an hour, they again said they couldn’t reach a unanimous decision.
Rosenberg urged them to continue to debate. Roughly 2½ hours later, they announced they had reached a verdict.
During both trials, defense attorneys emphasized that what began as a simple traffic stop quickly crescendoed into chaos. The car driven by Byron Harris clipped Officer Jeffrey Williams, who was throwing down stop sticks to prevent it from getting on Interstate 95. Williams was critically injured when he was run over by the officer who was in pursuit.
When the call went out that an officer was down, nine officers joined the chase. They reached speeds of 100 mph as they pursued the car from Gateway Boulevard in Boynton Beach to West Palm Beach and back to Lake Worth, where it finally stopped on South A Street after Brown rammed into it.
“This was a high-stress, high-emotion situation that night,” Lerman said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Osborne and U.S. Department of Justice attorney Donald Tonnage insisted that the officers could have done the right thing. Boynton Beach training Sgt. Sedrick Aiken testified that the officers should have remained by their police vehicles, ordered the three to get out of the car and slapped them in handcuffs. Instead, the video shows officers rushing toward the car, dragging the three out and kicking and punching them.
Lerman described Antico as “a scapegoat for the Boynton Beach Police Department.” Had others, including top brass, done their jobs, Antico wouldn’t have had to deal with the officers’ incomplete reports when he returned from vacation seven days after the incident. “Sgt. Antico never tried to justify what happened,” he said.
But Osborne and Tunnage countered that an audit trail of the officers’ reports tells a different story. Brown, for instance, never reported that he hit Braswell while holding his gun. Harris, meanwhile, on his second attempt to describe what happened, admitted he hit Braswell when he was handcuffed. In a final report, approved by Antico 45 second later, the word “handcuffed” disappears.
They changed their reports to acknowledge they punched and kicked the three, but key details were still left out, Osborne told jurors in closing arguments, blaming Antico for helping them craft the careful omissions after watching the helicopter video.
Antico didn’t know about the audit trail when he met with FBI agents in February 2015. During a four-hour videotaped interview played for jurors, Antico told agents the officers’ original reports were accurate.
When former Special Agent Stuart Robinson later learned the department’s computer system tracked all changes officers make to their reports, he said he was flabbergasted by Antico’s duplicity. “It affected the credibility of the officers who wrote the reports. It affected the credibility of Sgt. Antico,” he told jurors Tuesday. “We wondered what they were hiding. … There were a whole slew of questions about who was lying to us and their motivations for lying to us.”
But Lerman said Antico wasn’t lying. “He had no reason to lie and cover up,” he said, attributing Antico’s memory lapes to the rigors of the four-hour interview.
In closing arguments, Tunnage scoffed at Antico’s claims. “This is not about a memory lapse. This is about a lapse of judgment,” he said.
While the two recent trials focused a dark light on the agency, Boynton Mayor Steven Grant said much has changed under Katz’s leadership.
“As a resident of Boynton Beach living across the street from the police station I feel safe in my community,” he said. “All of our new hires go through an extensive training and recruitment process. The fun fact he always likes to say is it’s harder to become a Boynton Beach police officer than it is to get into Harvard.”