BEAUMONT — More than six years after their first fateful encounter on a late August night in 2007, Derrick Newman testified Thursday in his federal civil rights violations lawsuit against two Beaumont police officers.
David Todd Burke and James Cody Guedry were among several officers who arrived at a scene in which Newman, a passenger in a vehicle stopped for a minor traffic infraction in a high-crime part of Beaumont on August 24, 2007, was being given a pat-down search by Guedry when a struggle ensued.
In 2010, Burke (since retired) and Guedry were convicted by separate juries of the Class A misdemeanor charge of official oppression, Burke for using his custom-made police baton 13 times against Newman and Guedry for repeatedly using a Taser against him.
However, both men’s convictions were overturned by appeals courts on technical grounds, and both are awaiting retrial in Jefferson County state criminal courts. [For more background on the case and a link to a video of the incident, click here.]
In the civil case, U.S. District Judge Ron Clark ruled in a pretrial hearing that neither man’s conviction (or the resisting arrest or search charges Newman was initially charged with but were later dropped) were material. He did caution the attorneys on both sides, however, that if they strayed into that territory during examinations it could open the door for those things to be heard by the five-man, four-woman jury.
Wearing a charcoal suit, Newman spoke in a soft voice as he described how he and his lifelong friend Willie Cole, the driver of the car, tried to calm down Mario Cole, Willie’s brother, who was being profanely combative while two officers were attempting to place him under arrest on outstanding traffic warrants.
Video taken by the dashboard camera of Officer Jason Torres (who made the initial traffic stop) depicts Newman and Willie Cole standing in the open doorways of the car, most often with their hands on top, as they speak to Mario.
“We were telling him to chill out, that if he went to jail we’d come get him,” Newman told the jurors under direct examination by his attorney, Langston Adams. He later admitted that neither he nor Willie obeyed the command of Officer John Brown to get back inside the car, saying they were attempting to assist the officers in calming down Mario.
The video later shows Guedry, then a rookie officer with only a few months on the Beaumont police force, arrive at the scene with his Taser drawn. He points the weapon at Newman, who is seen moving to the back of the car and placing his hands on the trunk.
Newman testified that he consented to a search by Guedry, who proceeded to pat him down. It is at that point where versions of what happened diverge.
Newman testified that as Guedry began to feel around his groin area, presumably for a gun or other weapon, it seemed that the officer was lingering too long.
“I told him there ain’t nothing but nuts there, it seems like you’re trying to get those,” Newman said. (Guedry has previously testified that Newman grabbed his hand, pulled it toward his own crotch and said, “Get you some of that.”)
On the video, none of the words spoken by the two men can be heard. But it depicts Guedry suddenly pushing Newman down onto the trunk of the car and the struggle begin, just as Burke arrives on the scene with his baton already pulled from its belt-ring. Burke can be seen looking at Officer Torres, who directs him toward Guedry and Newman, and moving in quickly to strike Newman repeatedly with the baton.
While playing the Torres video (along with two others taken by the cameras of other officers on the scene), Adams, Newman’s attorney, paused the scene at each of Burke’s 13 blows and asked Newman if either officer gave him any command that he could have obeyed to get them to stop.
“No, sir,” Newman repeated each time. During the entire encounter, up until the time Guedry used the Taser against him, he said he kept his feet planted on the ground and his hands on the back of the vehicle. After the first use of the Taser, Newman can be seen falling to the ground (with his loose-fitting shorts already fallen to his ankles), and heard shouting, “OK, OK, OK!”
“I would have said anything to make him stop shooting electricity through me,” he told the jurors.
Newman testified that he suffered deep contusions on the arm and thigh from the baton blows, as well as abrasions on his shoulder from being dragged by Guedry from the middle of the street to the curb while in handcuffs before paramedics arrived on the scene.
He also testified that he suffered depression, anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks from the incident, for which he later reluctantly sought treatment by a psychiatrist. In the lawsuit, he is seeking reimbursement for medical costw and lost wages, as well as unspecified monetary damages for pain and suffering.
Under cross-examination by Craig Schexnaider, the lead defense attorney, Newman declined to admit that he and Willie Cole “added to the commotion” of the scene by not obeying Brown’s order to get back into the car. Instead, he said, they were trying to keep the situation with Mario Cole from escalating, so he wouldn’t suffer the same treatment that Newman eventually received.
The second witness called by Adams was Lloyd Grafton, a retired criminal justice professor from Louisiana who had previously served for 23 years as a special agent of the federal Bureau of Arms, Tobacco and Firearms.
After a long recitation by Adams of his credentials and previous cases in which he has testified as an expert witness, Grafton said that his review of the videotapes and other documentary evidence indicates that both Burke and Guedry used excessive force against Newman.
“This isn’t even a close call,” Grafton said, adding that nothing Newman did could have justified the treatment he received.
“It was excessive force from start to finish,” he said.
During cross-examination, Schexnaider went to some lengths to cast doubt on Grafton’s relevant experience as a federal agent in testifying about a case that derived from a local traffic stop. But Grafton said he’d had such experiences as a reserve officer in Florida in the 1960s, and that he’d made many such arrests working alongside local law enforcement agencies.
During Thursday’s testimony (which had been delayed two days by inclement weather in Southeast Texas that caused the Jack Brooks Federal Courthouse to remain closed), Clark often showed irritation with both legal teams, particularly when Adams read from Grafton’s curriculum vitae and when Schexnaider and Grafton went into a long back-and-forth discussion about the latter’s knowledge of “Texas police procedure.”
Adams is expected to wrap up his case Friday morning, followed by the defense case.
Copyright © 2014 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.