Judge denies motion to dismiss charges against Wilmington officer

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A judge has denied a defense motion to dismiss two misdemeanor charges against a Wilmington police officer charged in the April 2014 assault of a teen during his arrest.

Corporal James Johnson faces charges of simple assault and failure to discharge duties in the April 4, 2014 arrest of Tyrell Rivers, then 16. Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson heard the defenses motion from attorney Michael McGuinness on Thursday afternoon, after the state had rested its case.

The defense motion came after Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple presented the state’s final two witnesses. Testimony resumed Thursday morning from John Combs, a state’s expert witness in officer use of force cases. Combs testified Wednesday that Johnson’s actions were “not reasonable” based off what he saw in the corporal’s in-car camera video taken from the night of Rivers’ arrest.

On April 4, Rivers was pursued as a suspect through the Jervay public housing community and was apprehended after a foot chase with Wilmington police. Rivers has since pleaded guilty to charges in that case. The alleged assault, in which the state alleges Johnson choked Rivers, was discovered on the in-car video footage by an attorney who represented Rivers on charges relating to the arrest, Temple said. The investigations into the alleged assault took place after Rivers’ guilty plea.

Johnson is shown on the video placing his hands in the area of the teen’s neck on two occasions while Rivers was in the back of the patrol vehicle. Rivers had been kicking the car door and was pulled out so the officers could place straps around his legs, which is a standard procedure performed by officers to restrain a suspect. While back in the car, Rivers kicked the vehicle door again.

Upon cross-examination of Combs, McGuinness questioned the amount of materials that were presented to Combs at the time he formed the opinion that Johnson’s application of two different pressure point techniques the officer claimed to have used on Rivers was not reasonable. McGuinness noted the state hadn’t presented the witness with Rivers’ medical records from the jail, which indicated he was uninjured and showed no medical signs of choking.

McGuinness also asked if the application of the pressure point technique to the teen’s neck could have been mistaken as choking. Combs agreed that at times, the application of those techniques to the neck area could be misinterpreted. But upon redirect questioning by Temple, Combs maintained his opinion that Johnson’s actions were not reasonable given the circumstances of the arrest.

“It was my opinion based on the use of the pressure points and the application of the technique,” Combs said. “The application is much different than what I saw in the video.”

Michael Palanza, a licensed psychological associate, also took the stand Thursday afternoon. He testified he conducted a psychological assessment of Rivers’ cognitive abilities in February 2014. During that assessment, Palanza said he tested Rivers’ verbal comprehension, perceptual reasoning, working memory, and processing speed.

He found Rivers was on the lower end of much of the testing, with an overall IQ of 73. After completing the full assessment, he diagnosed Rivers with conduct disorder, attention deficit disorder, and child-parent relationship problems.

In his diagnosis, Palanza noted Rivers had a pattern of behavior that involves violation of rules and social norms, as well as defiance. He said, based on the clinical diagnosis, Rivers’ aggression and mood could become “impulsive and explosive.”

When questioned by McGuinness about Rivers’ encounters with law enforcement, Palanza said it was noted the teen had at most six encounters with the legal system, adding that considering that he was 16, those encounters were “clinically significant.” But despite his encounters with the law, Palanza said Rivers’ behavior in the classroom was “good.”

In school, Rivers was receiving special education services under the category of “other health impaired,” Palanza said.

The bench trial will continue Friday morning in New Hanover County Superior court with testimony from defense witnesses.