16-year-old Tyrell Rivers was arrested in the Jervay community on drug-related charges as well as trespassing and resisting arrest. (Source: WECT)
WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) -
The bench trial for a Wilmington police officer accused of using excessive force during the arrest of a teenager in 2014 is underway.
Tyrell Rivers, then 16, was arrested April 4, 2014 in the Jervay community on drug-related charges as well as trespassing and resisting arrest.
A New Hanover County grand jury later indicted Corporal James Johnson for misdemeanor charges of simple assault and willful failure to discharge duties after the arrest of Rivers.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David asked the SBI to step in and help after he viewed surveillance video from the police cruiser. The video reportedly showed Johnson attempting to subdue Rivers during the arrest and asking him, "Do you want to die in my backseat tonight?"
The drug-related charges against Rivers were eventually dropped and he pleaded guilty to trespassing and resisting arrest.
During opening statements Tuesday morning, defense attorneys argued Johnson was not choking Rivers during the incident, but used a pressure point control technique known as a "C-clamp" to try and subdue him. The defense also argued that Rivers showed no signs of choking or strangulation afterwards.
The defense added that Johnson was performing his duties to protect himself and the public because Rivers' "violent tirade" was a threat to everyone. Johnson was also caught on video asking Rivers if he wanted to die in his police cruiser that night.
The defense argued that it was just a rhetorical question and wasn't an actual threat. They also argued that it was part of the "verbal judo" that officers tend to use to get a belligerent suspect's attention.
Rivers takes the stand
Following a near two-hour recess, prosecutors called Rivers to the stand.
He said that he and two other friends were hanging out that night and cut through the Jervay community near Dawson Street to get home. He said when two police officers approached him, he got nervous that the cops might have a possible warrant for his arrest, so he took off.
Rivers said officers chased him across Dawson Street and eventually caught up to him after he fell down trying to jump a fence.
During his arrest, officers discovered three bindles of heroin, some marijuana, and drug paraphernalia on Rivers. He admitted to prosecutors that he was wanting to sell the heroin, but not necessarily that night. Rivers also conceded that he took around two Xanax pills sometime before the incident.
Rivers said his outburst started after he became angry that an officer was being rough and kneeing him in the back while trying to apply handcuffs.
He also claimed that Johnson choked him while trying to put him in the police cruiser the first time, further agitating him.
Rivers said he began kicking the back door of the car. Johnson and other officers removed Rivers and applied a restraining device to his legs known as a “hobble device” and put him in the car again.
Rivers said he started kicking the door again, and Johnson choked him a second time and then said something to him that he couldn’t recall.
Once at the jail, Rivers said he did not alert anyone that he was choked because he felt that kind of thing happens all the time to African Americans and nothing would come of it.
Rivers confirmed defense suspicions when he said he was indeed a member of the Double I’s gang, but decided to leave them two or three weeks ago. He said he joined the gang mainly to make money, usually through selling drugs. He also said he wasn’t up to any sort of gang-related activity the night he was arrested.
The defense questions Rivers
After the prosecution wrapped up its initial questioning of Rivers, the defense took over and tried to immediately poke holes in the reliability of his testimony.
Defense attorneys pointed to a statement that Rivers made to an SBI agent about two months after the incident. In that statement, Rivers claimed he didn’t recall much of the event because he was high on marijuana, which contradicted his earlier testimony Tuesday afternoon that he was on Xanax at the time.
The defense kept probing Rivers about his memory of the events that night. Attorneys asked Rivers why he never reported that he was choked during the inmate intake medical screening process at the jail. The defense pulled up that report, and Rivers answered “no” when asked if he had any trauma or wounds, used alcohol or drugs, or had any breathing issues.
The defense said the medical screening gave him a clean bill of health.