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VERDICT: WPD officer not guilty of using excessive force during 2014 arrest

Published: Jun. 10, 2016 at 4:16 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 10, 2016 at 10:00 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - A judge ruled Friday Wilmington Police Department officer James "Coley" Johnson was not guilty on two charges stemming from an alleged excessive use-of-force incident in 2014.

Corporal James "Coley" Johnson was 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.

RAW Video of Rivers' arrest: Warning, this video contains strong language which was left in to provide context to the incident that night.

Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said following the verdict that Johnson will now face an internal affairs investigation on behalf of the agency.

"These investigations are never easy. They impact the agency, they affect our relationship with the community and they challenge the public's trust. However, I am committed to conducting a thorough investigation and will take the appropriate action if necessary," Evangelous said. "We will continue our efforts to work closely with the community to strengthen the public's trust and maintain good community relations."

Johnson will remain on administrative leave pending the outcome of the internal affairs investigation.

Former WPD officer Stafford Brister, cleared of any wrongdoing in a separate alleged excessive use-of-force incident in 2013, reacted to Johnson being tried for the incident.

"This is a down right travesty, when gang-banging violent drug dealers are victimized, and good cops taking them off the streets are villainized," Stafford said. For Ben David to dismiss a heroin charge with the heroin epidemic, and indict the officer, is a slap to the face to everyone that has been a victim of that drug. Cops used to only worry about cop killers on the street. Now, cops have to fear Ben David, now the 'Cop Career Killer.' He's up to 3 wrongfully accused officers."

Closing arguments in the trial began Friday morning.

Bench Trial for James Johnson

J. Michael McGuinness, Johnson's attorney, began with the defense's closing arguments.

McGuinness said Rivers never acknowledged he was choked until an attorney told him he was, and that there was no evidence to show that he was choked. He added Rivers admitted he intended to sell heroin the night of the incident.

McGuinness also pointed out that Johnson went for the lowest possible threshold of force against Rivers, and that officers have a duty to stop a crime in progress – a reference to Rivers repeatedly kicking the inside of the patrol car.

McGuinness said the charge that Johnson jeopardized the safety of Rivers is "mind-boggling" and "off the charts."

McGuinness also stated Rivers threatened Johnson's 89-year-old mother following the incident.

After a short recess, the defense said Johnson should be thanked for what he did, not prosecuted. They brought up Rivers' criminal history, which includes drug charges and several weapon convictions, and said his lawsuit against Johnson shows that he did not want to go peacefully that night.

The defense then reiterated that Johnson was not choking Rivers, but using a pressure point control technique. They cited the doctor's testimony that Rivers' airway was not cut off.

The defense ended their closing arguments by stating the prosecution did not prove Johnson wasn't doing something he wasn't supposed to, and there is no evidence he acted in a malicious way. They added he did what was expected of him.

The prosecution began by attempting to show the car cam video that captured the incident, but could not get it to work.

They stated the video was evidence of Johnson's excessive use of force, and was the reason the SBI was contacted to investigate. The prosecution then claimed the video showed that Johnson did not use proper defense tactics, and found it hard to believe he was promoting Rivers' safety by putting his hands around Rivers' throat and asking him if he wanted to die.

The prosecution then pointed out the defense took every chance to disparage Rivers, calling him a criminal and a liar.

Prosecutors then argued that Rivers was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, and there was no physical force against any officer. They added whether or not Rivers was injured has nothing to do with whether he was assaulted.

They then addressed the defense's notion that Rivers didn't tell anyone that he was choked, saying he didn't tell anyone because he didn't think anything would be done about it.

In reference to how Rivers' communicated with Johnson the night of the incident, prosecutors claimed his IQ of 73 and the environment he grew up in led to his view of law enforcement.

Prosecutors finished by offering their theory of the case.

"What this is, is an officer who got mad. He just got mad. People can reach their limit and they can snap. That's my theory in this case." "We need to limit as a community the force that is allowed for officers."

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