Vassey trial: Use of force expert says Keith Vidal shooting was justified

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Bryon Vance Vassey
Bryon Vance Vassey

An expert in officer use of force cases said Southport Police Officer Bryon Vassey’s actions were “reasonable” and “appropriate” when he fired his weapon at 18-year-old Keith Vidal and killed the mentally ill teen.

Dave Frederick Cloutier took the stand at the start of day 10 in Vassey’s voluntary manslaughter bench trial, and testified as an expert witness for the defense. Vassey is charged with shooting and killing Vidal at his Boiling Spring Lakes home on Jan. 5, 2014.

Cloutier told the court he went to Vidal’s home on President Road to review the use of force case two occasions since the incident. The second time, he was with Vassey, then a Southport officer but now on unpaid leave. 

Vassey – the last of three officers to arrive at the scene – fired a single shot that killed Vidal a minute and ten seconds after he arrived at the home. The fatal shot was fired while Boiling Spring Lakes Officer John Thomas was in a struggle with the teen over a tool on the hallway floor of the the teen’s home. State prosecutors say that tool was a was a screwdriver. The defense maintains it was a Kobalt pick.

Cloutier said officers are trained to have a 21-foot distance between them and a person with a weapon, so that they have a little more than a second to draw their weapon. He told the court that the layout of the narrow hallway where Vidal was shot was significant in that it was a little over 15 feet long and 37 inches wide, with multiple rooms attached.

There were use of force variables Cloutier used for his analysis, including “pre-attack cues” that he said Vidal displayed when he told one officer to “fight” him and when he moved toward the officers with a weapon, which the teen wouldn’t relinquish to law enforcement.

“In my opinion, Detective Sgt. Vassey, used force that was appropriate based on his training to protect the life of…another officer,” Cloutier said.

When asked by Vassey’s attorney Michael McGuinness if the shooting was justified, Cloutier said in his opinion it was “justified” under the circumstances and was “not excessive.”

“There was a serious risk of Officer Thomas being seriously wounded, injured or even killed,” Cloutier said. “In my opinion it was necessary.”

Assistant District Attorney Daniel Thurston asked the witness whether Vassey could have used any other method to help in the incident besides drawing his weapon, such as using his body to “punch” or “kick” the teen. Cloutier testified that it could have been used “if the circumstances present themselves.”

Thurston also pointed out to the witness that Vassey was the one to turn in the “pick” to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation hours after the incident. All witnesses for the prosecution, including two police officers, have testified the weapon Vidal had was a screwdriver.

But Cloutier testified that the weapon, whether a screwdriver or a pick, could be used as a lethal weapon and it was being used by Vidal to commit a “felonious assault” on Thomas.

Thurston also asked if Vassey displayed “pre-attack cues” when he was advising other officers to use their tasers to subdue Vidal. Cloutier said, “As I understand it, no.”

When Cloutier’s testimony concluded Monday, Vassey’s defense team presented a motion for the Judge Richard Brown to review Vidal’s home. Brown has yet to make a ruling on the motion. The trial will continue Tuesday morning in Brunswick County Superior Court.