Judge denies motion to dismiss officer’s voluntary manslaughter charge

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Bryon Vance Vassey
Bryon Vance Vassey

At the conclusion of the state’s evidence in Bryon Vassey’s bench trial on Tuesday morning, Judge Richard Brown heard the defense motion to dismiss the charge against Vassey, who is accused of shooting and killing 18-year-old Keith Vidal on Jan. 5, 2014.

Vassey, who was a Southport police officer at the time and is now on unpaid administrative leave, was the last of three officers on scene, after Vidal’s stepfather called police to their President Road home in Boiling Spring Lakes for help. Vassey arrived on scene one minute and ten seconds before he fired a single shot that killed Vidal.

As he presented the defense’s motion, attorney Michael McGuinness said the state had insufficient evidence to establish that the Vidal’s shooting death was unlawful under the “privilege” of a law enforcement officer’s duty.

Assistant District Attorney Lee Bollinger said that Vassey’s conduct was not reasonable under the circumstances and the use of a firearm to subdue Vidal, a mentally ill teenager, was “excessive force.”

Under the circumstances, McGuinness argued the use of force was reasonable. Vassey had a duty to defend Boiling Spring Lakes Police Officer John Thomas, who was struggling with the teen in the hallway of his home, he said. The prosecution and its witnesses say the teen held a screwdriver in his hand during the scuffle; the defense says the evidence points to the teen holding a “pick.”

Vassey observed the situation and “reasonably believed” Vidal was using deadly force against Thomas, McGuiness said, adding that Vassey fired his weapon at “crucial period of time” when Thomas was in a “fierce battle” with Vidal over the weapon.

“Sergeant Vassey was confronted with the worst nightmare of a law enforcement officer…he had a split second as he was watching the struggle,” McGuinness said.

Whether Vidal had a screwdriver in his hand or Kobalt pick – as the defense has presented in Vassey’s trial – the tool was recognized by several state’s witnesses as a deadly weapon, McGuinness said.

Bollinger argued Thomas took time to assess the situation and told the court he was “willing to take all day if necessary” to sort it out. Bollinger said not a single weapon, or threa,t was directed at Vidal before Vassey arrived at the home.

“Those are the actions of a reasonable officer, armed with the same information that Sergeant Vassey had when he responded to the residence,” Bollinger said. He added that it was Officer Thomas, who was first on the scene, who testified in court that Vassey’s conduct was not appropriate.

After hearing the defense’s motion and arguments from state prosecutors, the court took an extended recess Tuesday afternoon for the judge to review the motion to dismiss. Brown ultimately denied the motion, and the defense moved to present their first defense witnesses in the case.

Moira Freierson Artigues, a general and forensic psychiatrist in private practice, began testimony Tuesday as an expert witness for the defense. The defense is using Artigues’ professional experience to highlight Vidal’s mental health condition in the years before his death, as well as examine his “suicidal” and “homicidal” tendencies documented in his involuntary commitment records and diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder.

The trial will resume Wednesday morning with more testimony from Artigues.

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