Pablo Lopez, 2/8/13
The federal criminal trial of a Fresno police sergeant and three former officers ended abruptly Friday after jurors said they were hopelessly deadlocked 9-3 to find the defendants not guilty of charges of police brutality and obstruction of justice.
The panel’s vote was a devastating blow to the prosecution, which convinced three Fresno police officers to testify against their own.
It’s unclear whether prosecutors will retry the case. They declined to comment.
But defense lawyers said jurors told them the three officers’ accounts were unreliable as to why suspect Rolando Celdon was punched and kicked, bit by a police dog, shot with a stun gun and blasted several times with a bean-bag shotgun in October 2005.
Nine jurors also found bogus the prosecution’s allegation that the defendants tried to cover-up their actions with false police reports, defense lawyers said.
“What a waste of taxpayers money,” said attorney Marshall Hodgkins, who defended former Fresno officer Sean Plymale.
“We put our heart and soul into this case, but we came up short,” he said.
Defense attorney Paul Goyette, who defended former Fresno police officer Chris Coleman, elaborated on Hodgkin’s frustration. He said the panel told him that a 10th juror was leaning toward not guilty on all charges, but two jurors were entrenched in finding the defendants guilty.
“To go forward with another trial would be such a waste of taxpayers money — big time,” Goyette said.
In total, the panel deliberated about four hours in a trial that lasted five weeks in U.S. District Court. Once a deadlock was declared, Judge Anthony Ishii said he had no choice but to dismiss the panel and order both sides to return later this month to schedule a new trial date.
A federal indictment accused Fresno police Sgt. Michael Manfredi and Plymale of concealing the alleged assault on Celdon by former officers Coleman and Paul Van Dalen. All four were charged with falsifying an official report to obstruct justice. If convicted, each could have faced up to 20 years in prison.
Police were searching for Celdon because he had broken into his girlfriend’s southeast Fresno apartment and assaulted her in front of her child. Celdon was was later deported after being convicted of stalking and striking her.
Because he couldn’t be found in Mexico, the prosecution’s case was built on the testimony of Fresno police officers Martin Van Overbeek, Tom Hardin Jr. and Beau Burger. They testified that Celdon posed no threat when Coleman fired six or seven bean-bag rounds at him and Van Dalen kicked him in the side at least twice. They also said they never saw a weapon near Celdon when he was taken into custody.
After Celdon’s arrest Police Chief Jerry Dyer put Manfredi, Plymale, Coleman and Van Dalen on administrative leave, asked for an FBI investigation of the arrest and eventually fired the four. Manfredi won his job back through an arbitrator and a civil service review board. An arbitrator ruled Plymale should be reinstated, too, but he chose to work for the Madera Police Department. Coleman and Van Dalen left police work.
Friday, all four defendants left the courthouse without talking to reporters.