WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The defense began making their case Friday in the trial of a Wilmington police officer accused of using excessive force in a 2014 arrest.
Corporal James "Coley" Johnson is charged with simple assault and willful failure to discharge duties in the arrest of then 16-year-old Tyrell Rivers. Rivers was arrested on April 4, 2014 for trespassing, drug charges, and resisting arrest in the Jervay housing community.
A half dozen character witnesses took the stand in New Hanover County Court Friday, testifying on behalf of Johnson. Those witnesses included recently retired Wilmington Police Captain Tom Witkowski, Retired Police Chaplain James Jamison, and Bruce Hickman, who at one time served as interim Wilmington police chief.
"He always told the truth," Hickman said of Johnson. "He was very laid back. He was an officer I never had to worry about being overforceful."
Witkowski went even further in his praise of Corporal Johnson.
"He's the most tactically responsible person I've met in my 31-year career."
After the character witnesses, Dave Cloutier, an expert in use of force, took the stand for the defense.
He testified that the "C clamp" pressure point technique Johnson used to subdue Rivers was appropriate and not excessive. He elaborated about how the C clamp works, and said while it may look like a person is being choked by an outside observer, the maneuver does not compress the corroded artery or the windpipe.
He said the maneuver is meant to temporarily inflict pain to subdue a defendant when verbal commands have been unsuccessful. Cloutier explained that while a person might think they were being choked because an officer's hand is placed over their throat, the maneuver is fundamentally different in its impact.
Cloutier went on to support Johnson's subsequent use of a hobbling restraint and a secondary pressure point maneuver when Rivers continued to be combative.
When questioned about Johnson's statement to Rivers, "Do you want to die in the back seat of my patrol car? Stop!" which is captured on police video, Cloutier said in his opinion it could have either been an attempt to "get down to street level" and get Rivers attention, or it could have been a warning that Rivers could injure himself if he did not stop resisting arrest.
The defense called a local internal medicine physician, who is also a sworn WPD officer, to the stand after lunch recess.
He testified after reviewing the video of the incident many times, he does not believe Rivers was choked. He said there are specific symptoms following choking, such as raspiness of breath, and loss of voice for several minutes at least. He said neither of those were evident in the video.
He added the intake medical record at the jail is consistent in his opinion, because Rivers did not indicate any recent traumas or medical issues when he was booked.