- Alexandra Seltzer Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A federal jury is expected to start deliberations mid-morning to determine if a Boynton Beach Police officer and two former city officers used excessive force on an unarmed Lake Worth man in 2014 and then lied about it in their reports.
Defense attorneys for Officer Michael Brown and former officers Justin Harris and Ronald Ryan call the government’s case “Monday-morning quarterbacking” and say federal prosecutors Susan Osborne and Donald Tunnage are “nitpicking” the officers’ actions for forgetting to detail in reports the force they used on Jeffrey Braswell.
But the government says the officers excessively beat Braswell out of punishment for the high-speed chase that led to an officer being seriously injured, and then tried to hide it in those reports.
Brown, Harris and Ryan have chosen not to testify.
Before the jury gets the case today, the trial will resume at 9 a.m. with M. Caroline McCrae’s closing argument on behalf of Ryan. Then, the government will be given 30 minutes to end its closing. The jurors told the court on Tuesday they wanted to finish all the closings by that night, but a legal issue was brought to U.S. District Court Judge Robin Rosenberg’s attention.
Attorneys for Brown and Harris made their closing arguments Tuesday in a courtroom that included about 12 Boynton Beach Police officers.
In McCrae’s closing for Ryan, however, she mentioned a document the government entered into evidence that includes comments from a second passenger in the car, Ashley Hill. In that document, Hill accuses Braswell — who is not testifying in the case — of dealing drugs. The judge previously ruled Braswell’s criminal history was not to be mentioned by anyone in the trial, and the government thought that ruling was violated.
Rosenberg planned to research the issue overnight.
The federal charges the three men face came from an Aug. 20, 2014 case where police said they saw Byron Harris, then 26, run a stop sign and later drop a bag of white powder out of the car. Braswell was sitting in the front seat and Hill in the back. Harris led police on a chase on Interstate 95 at speeds of up to 100 mph.
During the pursuit, Harris sideswiped officer Jeffrey Williams as he put down stop sticks. Another police officer in the chase also hit Williams, seriously injuring him.
When Harris finally stopped, officers swarmed his car, including Brown, Ryan and Harris. The officers beat and used a Taser on Braswell in the car while a PBSO helicopter recorded from above.
Brown, Harris and Ryan were indicted on deprivation of rights under color of law and falsification of records. Brown also faces a charge of use of a firearm during a crime of violence. They each face up to 20 years in a federal prison.
While Osborne and Tunnage say Brown had a gun in his hand while he punched Braswell and kicked him while in the car, Brown’s attorney, Bruce Reinhart, said the helicopter video doesn’t show that contact actually was made.
Harris’ attorney said one of the government’s witnesses said the officer’s force was justified because Braswell was resisting.
Boynton officer Patrick Monteith previously testified that he saw Braswell “blocking blows” and was still wearing his seat belt.
Regarding the reports, Osborne and Tunnage argued that the officers came clean in their reports only after they learned that their use of force was captured on a video by the PBSO helicopter that was called in to help track the car chase. But the defense attorneys say the men amended the reports days later because their boss, Sgt. Phil Antico, had come back from vacation after several days off. They were also exhausted and stressed out over the chaos they experienced, the attorneys said.
While showing the jury a photo of the injuries to Braswell’s face, Osborne said none of the officers explained in their reports what caused those injuries. But the defense said there’s no proof the officers actually were responsible for the injuries.
Also indicted is Antico, who the government says helped the three men lie in their reports. Antico will be tried separately after the completion of this trial, and jury selection could start today.