Judge dismisses delay in Columbus, Ga. Trial over fatal arrest
A judge has dismissed the postponement of a trial in the trial against three Columbus police officers accused of using excessive force against Hector Arreola, who died after his arrest in 2017.
In refusing to postpone the August 9 trial, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land also wrote that the prosecution of the murder charges against the police in a criminal investigation could not stand, under the Georgian law.
Lawyers for officers Michael Aguilar, Brian Dudley and Aaron Evrard have called for civil proceedings to be delayed because District Attorney Mark Jones has appointed a special prosecutor to present evidence of Arreola’s death to a grand jury.
This prosecutor, Christopher Breault, was sworn in on May 20. Jones said he hoped Breault would be ready for a grand jury review before the current term ends in two months.
Lawyers for the officers argue that the criminal investigation hampers their defense in the civil trial because officers would otherwise testify if they were not forced to use their Fifth Amendment law to avoid self-incrimination.
In Land’s ruling on Thursday, he wrote that the time limit for filing charges under Georgia’s statute of limitations has expired for less serious crimes, so officers can only be charged with murder.
“And quite frankly,” the judge added, “the evidence in this case, which is relatively comprehensive, indicates that a murder charge could not be brought up in good faith under Georgian law.”
The jury should be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the police willfully caused Arreola’s death or caused it by committing another crime, Land said.
“Although a theoretical argument based on a strained view of the evidence could be advanced that some evidence exists to support a charge, any reasonable prosecutor would ultimately conclude that the state could not shoulder its burden of proving guilt beyond any reasonable doubt, ”he wrote. “As a result, the accused are unlikely to ever face criminal charges for murder.”
He added: “This court must assume that the prosecutor will act in good faith and obey the law. “
Informed of Land’s decision on Thursday night, Jones said it does not alter his criminal investigation plans.
“I think it depends on the grand jury,” he said.
Circumstances of Arreola’s death
At 3:40 a.m. on January 9, 2017, Arreola called the police to check if her mother was at her Moss Drive home, although she was in no danger. He called back at 4:55 a.m. and was in his car outside his mother’s house when Aguilar and Dudley returned home.
When he became paranoid and started knocking on a neighbor’s door, the police attempted to stop him, starting a struggle that resulted in them handcuffing him face down and squeezing him as he stood. twisted and screamed. He went into cardiac arrest on his way to hospital, where he was pronounced dead the next day. He was 30 years old.
The lawsuit alleges that the cardiac arrest was the result of brain damage caused by the force the police used to restrain him.
Although Officer Evrard was not involved in the initial fight, he helped Aguilar restrain Arreola later as Dudley left for leg shackles.
Evidence in the civil trial includes body camera video and depositions from police officers and Arreola’s mother, who witnessed the arrest.
On Thursday evening, the district attorney said he still believes a grand jury should review the evidence.
“I think normal people agree that if a guy is handcuffed and tied up and he says he can’t breathe, many times you have to stop using force,” Jones said.
He said he would review Land’s decision.
Excessive force used?
Recounting the evidence in an earlier court ruling, Land wrote that officers began wrestling with Arreola at 5:25 a.m., before cornering him face down on the ground. They handcuffed him at 5:29 a.m. and Evrard arrived a minute later, taking Dudley’s place.
Land found that in four minutes and 27 seconds, Arreola said he couldn’t breathe 16 times. After putting on the handcuffs, officers lay on their backs for two minutes and 14 seconds, Land determined.
Any force used by officers after Arreola was handcuffed and ceased to resist is excessive, by law, Land wrote.
“The ultimate question … is whether there is sufficient evidence on the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Hector ceased to resist when he was handcuffed,” Land wrote.
The lawsuit was filed by Columbus attorney Mark Post, a former district attorney’s office. It represents the parents of Arreola, Rodrigo and Concepcion Arreola, and the child of their son, a minor identified only as “SA”
The lawsuit seeks compensation for medical and funeral expenses, attorney’s fees, the value of Hector Arreola’s life and any other award that a jury deems justified.
The three officers are prosecuted individually, although the city pays for their defense.
Lawyer Jim Clark represents Aguilar; Pete Temesgen represents Dudley; and Neal Callahan represents Evrard. The three officers are still employed by the police department.
The lawyers had another reason for delaying the trial, in their court application: they cited the publicity the case has generated, as the prospect of a criminal investigation loomed.
Land said he would assess the impact of this upon jury selection, and added:
“However, it would be helpful if all parties did not help poison the potential pool of jurors, which could lead to a subsequent prosecution or the overturning of the trial.”