BEAUMONT — During a trial that had already seen a fair share of dramatics, arguably the most scorching moment came Friday when former Beaumont police officer David Todd Burke neared the end of heated cross-examination by plaintiff’s attorney Langston Adams.
“You’re a LIAR! You’re a liar,” Burke barked at Adams from the witness stand before the five-man, four-woman jury hearing the federal civil rights violations lawsuit of Derrick Newman against Burke and Officer James Cody Guedry stemming from a late-night traffic stop in August 2007.
After Burke’s outburst, U.S. District Judge Ron Clark, who has demonstrated both irritation and resigned patience with the opposing legal teams since testimony began Thursday, calmly interjected and asked the men to restrain themselves.
Burke and Adams continued to fix heated stares at each for several long moments afterward, with Burke visibly nodding his head.
Burke and 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.]
After being convicted, Burke, who had previously served as a U.S. Marine, retired from the Beaumont Police Department after 16 years.
Under direct examination by lead defense attorney Craig Schexnaider, Burke reiterated what he testified to in his two previous criminal trials (the first, in April 2010 in Beaumont, ended with a hung jury and a mistrial; he was convicted by a Bexar County jury that September after a change of venue) — that he sped to the scene of the traffic stop after hearing an officer needs assistance call over his patrol car radio.
“It makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” Burke said of that type of dispatch. “Because I’ve been in that kind of situation.”
Once he’d arrived, the saw two officers struggling to restrain one man (Mario Cole, the other passenger in the car who had outstanding traffic arrest warrants), while other officers were conducting searches of Newman and Willie Cole, Mario’s brother and the driver of the car. Also, he said, a crowd of people had begun to gather near the scene.
Asked by Schexnaider what his immediate reaction was, Burke said, “My reaction is that there is going to be some trouble.”
Burke testified that another officer, Charles Duchamp, motioned him to assist Guedry, then a rookie officer with only a couple of months’ patrol training experience, who was conducting a pat-down search of Newman at the back of the car.
As seen on a dashboard camera video, a struggle suddenly broke out between Guedry and Newman, and Burke, who had begun to put away his custom-built wooden baton, moved quickly toward Newman and began to swing at him numerous times.
Burke testified that he saw Newman make a downward movement with his arm toward his waistband, which he said indicated the other man might be reaching for a weapon.
During the struggle, Guedry’s Taser fell to the ground. After retrieving it, and at the command of another officer, Guedry used the device at least twice before Newman was ultimately restrained.
Burke testified that during the struggle, Newman was able to turn around the throw a punch at him. This is not clearly apparent on the video (all three participants’ backs are facing the camera), and Adams, Newman’s lawyer, strongly disputed the claim in his cross-examination.
Guedry, who since his indictment in September 2009 has served as a community relations officer and instructor with the police department, told the jury about how he had only been working the streets as a trainee for a few weeks at the time of incident.
Guedry testified that he approached Newman with his Taser already drawn because the already-volatile situation with Mario Cole called for more caution. But he admitted that pointing the stun gun at Newman, even briefly, while asking him to consent to a search, was perhaps not the best move.
As he has previously testified, Guedry said Newman was initially complaint during the pat-down search. But when a commotion behind him caused him to turn his head, he testified, the other man grabbed his hand and pulled it toward his own crotch, saying “Get you some of that.”
Guedry said that he was pulled forward and struggling to free his hand, which is when the altercation began. It didn’t end, he testified, until after he’d retrieved his Taser from the ground and activated for a second time when Newman was lying on the pavement (he’d initially reported that he used it three times, but said that was a “rookie mistake’).
He also testified that he shouldn’t have placed his foot on Newman’s back as seen on the video (he said it was to prevent Newman from moving and forcing the Taser barbs deeper into his back), or dragged him to the curb of the road instead of helping him up first.
“I think it’s made me a better officer today,” Guedry said of the lessons he’s learned from the incident.
During often tense cross-examination by Adams, Guedry said he was forced to make decisions quickly as the situation evolved.
“I didn’t have the luxury you do to Monday-morning quarterback everything,” Guedry told Adams.
The defense team concluded their case by calling two expert witnesses in police use of force — Beaumont Police Sgt. Shawn Tolley and Gary Duncan, director of the Regional Police Academy at Lamar Institute of Technology in Beaumont from where most of the officers involved, including Burke and Guedry, graduated.
Both Tolley and Duncan testified that their reviews of the cases led them to conclude that Burke’s and Guedry’s actions were justified and lawful under the circumstances.
Under cross-examination, Adams attempted to cast doubt upon both experts’ objectivity in the case, since Tolley had worked with Burke for many years and both officers had graduated from the academy Duncan leads.
Both sides rested their cases Friday afternoon. Closing arguments are set to begin Monday morning before the case goes to the jury.
Copyright © 2014 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.