A judge’s deliberations are underway in a bench trial for a Southport police officer charged with fatally shooting a mentally ill teenager at his Boiling Spring Lakes home after his parents called police for help.
After a day of hearing closing arguments from two state prosecutors and three defense attorneys, Judge Richard Brown is considering a charge of voluntary manslaughter and will decide the guilt or innocence of 46-year-old Bryon Vassey, who is accused of shooting and killing 18-year-old Keith Vidal on Jan. 5, 2014.
In their closing statements to the judge Thursday, both the prosecution and defense presented arguments regarding the duty Vassey had as a law enforcement officer in the case. At the time, Vassey was an investigator for the Southport Police Department with a rank of detective sergeant. He was placed on unpaid leave following the incident.
The defense argued Vassey did his duty to protect the life of Boiling Spring Lakes Officer John Thomas, who was in a scuffle with Vidal over a pick – or screwdriver – he held.
“He made his best judgment call,” Attorney Michael McGuinness said. “Keith Vidal was always in custody that day because of the weapon that he held. His criminal conduct started with threats and eventually a felonious assault on an officer.”
Attorney James Payne added, “Any objective reasonable officer would have done the exact same thing because if Sgt. Vassey didn’t do his duty…it’s likely that we would be looking at the funeral of a law enforcement officer.”
The sergeant had a duty to save the life of Officer Thomas, Payne said.
But the prosecution contends Vassey had breached his duty to protect Vidal, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was being treated for the condition up until the incident. Vidal’s family called police to the home to get him to the hospital, according to Assistant District Attorney Lee Bollinger.
As an officer, Vassey had a duty to assess the situation when he arrived on scene and take time to deal with it, along with the other two officers already at the home, Bollinger said. Vassey was the last of three officers to arrive at the home. He was at the home for 70 seconds before he fired the shot that killed the teen.
“This is not an indictment against law enforcement. This is not an indictment of the brave men and women who do that every day. It is in fact, an indictment of a man who had a duty, but breached that duty to Keith Vidal,” Bollinger said.
Bollinger said all witnesses for the state in the case have testified that the tool Vidal had in his hand was not a pick, but a screwdriver. The teen committed no crime by holding that tool as he was met by officers when he was sweeping the hallway floor with the screwdriver, he added.
The prosecutor argued the evidence showed that Thomas had “control” of the screwdriver in Vidal’s hand when the two eventually went down to the floor of the hallway, after the teen had been tased. Assistant District Attorney Daniel Thurston added that all other witness on the scene testified to that, except for Vassey.
Vidal was not a threat to officers or a danger when he was shot, Thurston said, adding that the screwdriver “never came further than an inch off the ground.”
But Payne argued the testimony in the case showed the pick was just inches away from Thomas’ head. In Thomas’ body microphone recording, Payne said, it was Vidal’s step father, Mark Wilsey, who said the teen was trying to “stab” the officer.
Whether the tool was a pick or a Phillips head screwdriver, McGuinness argued, that weapon was “an instrument of death” that could have severely injured or killed Thomas.
The prosecution said there were other means of aiding Officer Thomas in the battle over the screwdriver and argued Vassey’s actions in shooting the teen were both “excessive” and “not reasonable.”
“It was four-on-one in that hallway…and Officer Vassey shot him,” Thurston said. “After viewing all this evidence, judge, I believe you can only come to one conclusion that Sgt. Vassey was not justified in shooting Keith Vidal as he was laying on the floor of his house not having committed a crime.”
McGuinness called the state’s analysis “Monday morning quarterbacking,” adding if Vassey “reasonably believed” there was a threat to officer Thomas, then Vassey is protected under the “privilege” of an officer’s right to use lethal force and is not guilty.
Following the closing arguments, Brown denied a third defense motion to dismiss the charge against Vassey. The judge will deliberate the case overnight. The trial will resume in Brunswick County Superior Court at 10 a.m. Friday. Check Port City Daily for a verdict in the case.