A Wilmington police corporal is on trial in New Hanover County Superior Court on charges he assaulted a 16-year-old boy while the teen was being arrested.
Testimony began Tuesday in the trial of James Coley Johnson, a 25-year veteran with the Wilmington Police Department. He faces charges of misdemeanor simple assault and failure to discharge duties in connection with the arrest of Tyrell Rivers on April 4, 2014. Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson is hearing the case.
Johnson, 51, was hired by the police department in 1989. He was placed on unpaid leave in June 2014, following his indictment on the charges in the use of force case.
In her opening statement Tuesday, Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple said the police corporal twice tried to choke Rivers in the back seat of his patrol vehicle on the night the teen was arrested. Attorney Michael McGuinness, who is representing Johnson, said the corporal was using pressure point techniques to subdue the teen, who had become violent during the arrest.
Rivers never reported the assault to authorities after he was arrested in the 900 block of Wooster Street, Temple said.
“He didn’t tell his mother, he didn’t tell his attorney, he didn’t tell anyone when he was arrested about what happened in that car,” Temple said.
The alleged assault was discovered on video footage from Johnson’s in-car police camera by an attorney who represented Rivers on charges relating to that arrest, Temple said. The teen pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and second-degree trespassing in New Hanover County District Court on April 24, 2014.
Temple asked the judge to pay careful attention to the video evidence of what she said was the assault taking place. The video was played in court on Tuesday and showed the officer placing his hands on the teen’s neck on two separate occasions, while the teen was in the back seat of the officer’s car.
“We are convinced that you will find this defendant guilty at the conclusion of all the state’s evidence,” Temple said.
McGuinness contends Johnson did not place his hands on the teen to choke him, but only to apply the pressure point techniques, which took “seconds.” The attorney added that Rivers was not out of breath and didn’t show any signs of being choked.
“Corporal James Johnson has protected and served…his department and his community,” McGuinness said, adding that the officer has had “an excellent reputation.”
Officers pursued Rivers in a foot chase after a suspicious persons call, McGuinness said, adding that the teen was committing felonies and was on the public housing community’s “no trespass” list. Rivers was found with heroin in his possession that was “ready to sell,” McGuinness said. Rivers also had marijuana in his possession.
McGuinness said Rivers became violent once he was apprehended. When Johnson put Rivers in the back of his police car, Rivers kicked the door of the patrol car, just below the window, McGuinness said.
Rivers, now 18, took the stand on Tuesday to testify to the assault. He did not deny the drugs he had in his possession, fleeing from police, or kicking the door of the police car during his arrest.
Rivers told the court he was coming back from a friend’s house after playing games, hanging out with girls and taking Xanax pills. He told the court he was on his way home and was approached by officers as he and a friend cut through the Jervay public housing community.
“They just ambushed us,” Rivers said. “They was coming from every direction…we was just walking.”
Asked why he ran from police, Rivers said, “I was nervous. I thought I might have a warrant.”
Rivers tried to hop a fence as he ran from police, but fell to the ground. That’s when another officer caught up to him and “put his knee in his back” as he was being handcuffed, Rivers said, adding that the action made him “mad” and he began to exchange “ugly” words with officers.
Rivers was escorted by police to Johnson’s patrol car and was searched. River said he and the officers were “having words” and talking “junk.” When he was placed in the back of the patrol car, Rivers said he was still upset.
River told the court his frustrations with the officers was the reason he kicked the door of Johnson’s patrol car. That’s when Rivers said he was “choked” by Officer Johnson for the first time.
“He cut my air off. And I couldn’t breathe. And that…made me heated,” Rivers said.
More words were exchanged and Rivers said was taken out of the car so officers could put straps around his legs. He was placed back into the patrol car, kicked the door, and said he was choked again.
Rivers said he was afraid and a little hurt, but did not tell anyone what had happened because he didn’t think anything was going to come of it.
“We used to getting harassed by police so we don’t really report it…because this stuff happens all the time,” Rivers said. “I don’t really have a problem with the police, I just don’t want them to feel like they can do whatever they want to the black community.”
Upon defense questioning, Rivers told the court he was a gang member but had left his gang just weeks before the trial. When asked by McGuinness why he joined the gang, Rivers said he did it for money.
McGuinness also questioned Rivers’ health examination at the jail, and pointed out that there were no complaints relating to the assault or any other health issues.
The defense will continue its questioning of Rivers Wednesday morning when the trial resumes in New Hanover County Superior Court.