A federal jury began deliberating Friday in the trial of two Pomona police officers facing charges involving the violent arrest of a teenager at the Los Angeles County Fair three years ago and the alleged cover-up that followed.
In closing arguments, prosecution and defense attorneys offered opposing views of the officers’ encounter with then-16-year-old Christian Aguilar in September 2015. The U.S. Attorney’s Office contends that officer Chad Jensen needlessly struck Aguilar for showing “disrespect,” and then he and fellow officer Prince Hutchinson penned false reports to justify the force.
“You can’t use excessive force to punish someone and teach them a lesson,” said prosecutor Donald Tunnage of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “Wearing a uniform certainly didn’t put these defendants above the law.”
Defense attorneys countered that Jensen — a 21-year veteran of the Pomona department — simply responded according to training when Aguilar resisted arrest at the Pomona Fairplex, and that both officers subsequently gave truthful narratives.
Michael Schwartz, Jensen’s lawyer, told jurors in downtown Los Angeles that they must consider his client’s use of violence “from the perspective” of the officer. Jensen believed he had to protect himself from Aguilar, whom he thought was “resisting” and had assumed a fighting stance, the attorney said in his closing argument.
Schwartz told the panel that while the prosecution attempted to portray Aguilar as a “defenseless teen,” the youth was then just under 6 feet tall, weighed about 200 pounds and looked more like an adult than a juvenile. In fact, Schwartz maintained, Aguilar was first placed in adult custody before he was taken to a juvenile holding cell.
Federal prosecutors allege that in brief reports prepared soon after the encounter — which was filmed by a bystander — Jensen falsely wrote that the “belligerent” teenager attempted to punch him in the jaw and came within arm’s reach of another officer.
Two years ago, the city of Pomona paid Aguilar $500,000 to settle a civil lawsuit over the encounter.
The incident began when Jensen noticed the teen filming police as they escorted the boy’s apparently drunk father and cousin off the fairgrounds, Assistant U.S. Attorney Frances Lewis alleged earlier this week.
Although Aguilar’s cellphone stopped recording just before the alleged assault, video footage taken by another fairgoer appears to show Aguilar being spun around and struck. Prosecutors contend that Jensen “grabbed” the youth and pulled him away to a small alcove where the officer struck him.
“The defenseless teen,” Schwartz said with sarcasm in his opening statement, told officers at one point that they “hit like a bunch of (weaklings).”
Hutchinson’s lawyer, Stuart Adams, told the panel that his client was completely accurate in his incident report, truthfully describing a “volatile” scene in which Aguilar was shouting and trying to “incite” fairgoers.
Aguilar was arrested that night for resisting arrest and charged as a juvenile. Eight months later, the officers repeated their accounts of the incident while testifying against the youth at a court hearing. The charges against the boy, as well as those against his father and cousin, were eventually dropped.
If convicted of all charges, the officers — who are on administrative leave from the department — could be sentenced to several years in federal prison, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A third Pomona officer is charged with obstruction of justice for attempting dissuade Aguilar’s family from pursuing an internal investigation into the arrest. Michael Neaderbaomer faces trial in December.
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