- Alexandra Seltzer Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The 12-member jury tasked with deciding whether a Boynton Beach police officer and his former colleagues used excessive force on a man three years ago, and covered it up in their reports, wanted a transcript of the trial on Wednesday, but was told to rely on their recollections instead.
And a few hours later, the jury reported they would not - the word underlined in a note to the judge - be able to reach a verdict on their first day of deliberations.
The federal trial for Officer Mike Brown and former officers Justin Harris and Ron Ryan will continue Thursday at 9 a.m., the last day of the week before the court breaks for three days for Veterans Day.
Brown, Harris and Ryan all face up to 20 years in prison for a case from August 2014. They were indicted on deprivation of rights under color of law and falsification of records. The government accuses the three of excessively beating Jeffrey Braswell, an unarmed passenger in a car driven by Byron Harris who led police on a high-speed chase, seriously injuring an officer.
The three — who chose not to testify — are also accused of lying about the beating in reports and only providing information after finding out a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s helicopter, called in to aide the officers, had video of the encounter. 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.
Harris resigned about two years ago to operate a gym and Ryan was fired from the force in 2016 after he was found to be unfit for duty unrelated to this case.
Brown, who is on paid administrative leave from the department, also faces a charge of use of a firearm during a crime of violence. Federal prosecutors Susan Osborne and Donald Tunnage said Brown hit Braswell with his hand while holding his gun. Brown’s attorney, Bruce Reinhart, said the video doesn’t show physical contact was made, and called him a “hero” for ending the chase that was a danger to the community.
Before the jury began deliberations at about 11:45 a.m. Wednesday, defense attorney M. Caroline McCrae finished her closing arguments on behalf of Ryan, with about eight police officers sitting in the courtroom. She said her client thought Braswell was reaching for a weapon in between the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat. She said he could have been reaching for the buckle to take off his seat belt, but jurors shouldn’t think with 20/20 hindsight, but “what was going through the officers’ minds on scene that night.” She added that a weapon can be turned against an officer “in the blink of an eye.”
McCrae said Ryan applied three to four knee strikes to Braswell while trying to get him into handcuffs after seeing his fellow officers struggling with him. Ryan didn’t immediately include it in his report because he was exhausted, she said.
“It was a mistake. It was not a criminal intention to cover something up,” said McCrae, who represents Ryan with Attorney Robert Adler.
Tunnage, in his closing, said he is outraged that it’s too much to expect officers to fill out a report accurately.
“People who are vested with the power to shoot and kill are incapable of writing a report?” he said to the jury.
He said the first time Ryan wrote in a report any mention of fear of a weapon was days later.
“At the heart of this is the reports were wrong because the defendants were lying,” Tunnage said. He said the officers wanted to cover up their actions of “beating and striking and tasing and kicking this non-resistant passenger.”
Reinhart and Attorney Jonathan Wasserman, who represents Harris, finished their closing arguments Tuesday. The defense calls the government’s case “Monday-morning quarterbacking.” They say the government is “nitpicking” the officers’ actions for forgetting to detail their force in reports.
The encounter with Braswell started when police saw Byron Harris run a stop sign and later drop a bag of white powder out of the car. Braswell was sitting in the front seat of the Mitsubishi. Byron Harris led police on a chase on Interstate 95 at speeds of up to 100 mph. One officer was putting out stop sticks when Byron Harris sideswiped him and another officer hit him, causing serious injury.
Brown rammed the car and then officers swarmed it. The government says Brown, Harris and Ryan were the only three of several officers on scene who dealt with Braswell.
Tunnage said officers “yanked and punched” Braswell while he was in the car wearing his seat belt “as if in a washing machine.” He said the officers were punishing Braswell for what had happened before. But McCrae said officers were struggling to get Braswell out of the car.
Once out of the car, Harris struck Braswell three times while he was handcuffed. Wasserman said the actions were reasonable because Braswell was resisting by trying to move his hands while the officer was checking to make sure he was secured.
Reinhart previously brought to the jury’s attention that the government hadn’t called Braswell to testify and said he was the “biggest piece of missing evidence.”
“Where’s Jeffrey Braswell?” he questioned.
Tunnage responded to that Wednesday and said: “Jeffrey Braswell is on that video.”
All three defense attorneys have asked the judge for acquittal based on insufficient evidence. Judge Robin Rosenberg reserved her ruling until later.
Meanwhile, the mens’ boss that August 2014 night, Sgt. Antico, is being tried separately. He has been accused of helping Harris, Ryan and Brown lie about the beating in their reports. Jury selection for his trial began Wednesday and will continue Thursday. Opening arguments are expected to begin Monday.