Prosecutors told a federal jury Friday that a Pomona police officer unlawfully beat a teenager at the Los Angeles County Fair three years ago for showing “disrespect” and then penned a false report, as did a colleague, to justify the use of force, but defense attorneys countered that the veteran lawman responded according to training when the youth resisted arrest and that both officers subsequently gave truthful narratives.
The opposing claims came in closing arguments of the criminal trial of officers Chad Jensen and Prince Hutchinson, who could face several years behind bars if found guilty of federal charges stemming from their encounter with then-16-year-old Christian Aguilar in September 2015.
“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.”
Michael Schwartz, Jensen’s lawyer, told the jurors 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.
The jury deliberated for about two hours at the downtown federal courthouse before going home for the weekend. The panel is scheduled to return on Monday morning.
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 at the start of trial 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 that they “hit like a bunch of (weaklings).”
Hutchinson’s lawyer, Stuart Adams, said his client truthfully reported 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 encounter 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.
Two years ago, the city of Pomona paid Aguilar $500,000 to settle a civil lawsuit over the encounter at the Pomona Fairplex.
Schwartz told the panel that while the prosecution attempted to portray Aguilar as harmless, 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 short 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.
A third Pomona officer, Michael Neaderbaomer, is charged separately for attempting to dissuade Aguilar’s family from pursuing an internal investigation into the arrest. He faces trial in December.
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