Eight defense witnesses took the stand Friday in the case of a Wilmington officer charged with two misdemeanors in an April 2014 arrest of a teen.
At the start of the defense’s evidence in the bench trial, six character witnesses offered testimony in the state’s case against Cpl. James Johnson, who is charged with simple assault and failure to discharge duties in the April 4, 2014 arrest of Tyrell Rivers. Johnson, a 25-year veteran of the force, has been on unpaid administrative leave since his indictment in the case in June 2014.
Prosecutors allege Johnson choked Rivers, then 16, on two occasions while the teen was in the back seat of the officer’s patrol vehicle. The defense maintains Johnson was utilizing two different pressure point techniques he was trained on as a law enforcement officer to stop the teen from kicking the door of the patrol vehicle.
Among the character witnesses were former, current and retired employees of the Wilmington Police Department. Bruce Hickman, a 30-year veteran of law enforcement who during his career at the department served as an assistant interim police chief and retired as a captain, said he has known Johnson since the corporal began his career on the force.
“He always told the truth,” Hickman testified. “He was very laid back and wasn’t an officer I had to worry about making bad decisions…he had a very congenial temperament.”
When Hickman assembled what would become the police department’s SWAT team, Johnson was one of his primary picks for the force, he said. Hickman said he chose officers for the team based on use of force reviews, IQ tests and physical exams.
Kevin Hargrove, currently a lieutenant watch commander with the force, said, “I’d trust him with my life,” adding that Johnson is “very honest and trustworthy.”
Tom Witkowski, who retired as a captain with the police department this week, said he considered Johnson a “go-to guy” he could count on to “get things done.” Johnson was “the most tactically sound officer” Witkowski said he had met in his 31-year career as a law enforcement officer.
Following the defense’s character witnesses, Attorney Michael McGuinness called Dave Cloutier to the stand. Cloutier, a Vietnam veteran with more than four decades of law enforcement experience, including work with the N.C. Justice Academy, testified as a defense expert in officer use of force cases.
Cloutier said he reviewed the video footage from the in-car camera “more than a dozen times.” The 20-minute video pictures both Johnson and Rivers in the back of the patrol car. He said he also examined Johnson’s indictments, the a N.C. State Bureau of Investigation interview with Rivers and a medical report taken of Rivers at the jail the night of his arrest.
The witness testified the two pressure point techniques Johnson said he used on Rivers while in the back seat of the patrol vehicle were “reasonable” and “justified.” Under the circumstances of the arrest and given Rivers’ behavior in the car, Cloutier testified that Johnson could have reasonably believed the method of force was appropriate.
Cloutier performed a brief demonstration on the defendant for the court on how the use of a “C-clamp” grip in the pressure point technique looks to an outside person, and testified it could be mistaken as choking. Cloutier added that the pressure point techniques shown in the video appeared to be “effective” and lasted only seconds, which in his opinion, was the proper way it should have been applied.
Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple noted that the “C-clamp” isn’t referenced in the Basic Law Enforcement Training course outline as an applied use of the pressure point techniques Johnson claimed to have used on Rivers. When Temple asked if that the type of grip could put a subject at a greater risk for injury, Cloutier said any use of force could do that.
He also testified that the officer was using “verbal judo” on Rivers when Johnson is heard in the video’s audio stating, “Do you want to die in the back seat of my car? Stop.” In his opinion, Cloutier said the language is “sometimes needed to get the attention of the subjects” and while the statement could have been viewed as a threat, it could also be perceived as a way to stop Rivers from potentially harming himself.
“I did not see anything malicious or corrupt about Johnson’s conduct,” Cloutier said.
The last witness called to the stand Friday was Dr. James Joachim, a local physician for Coastal Primary Care and a sworn officer with the Wilmington Police Department. He testified that Rivers showed no signs of choking based off his observations of the video.
Joachim said he reviewed the video several times, as well as Rivers’ medical jail record and the teen’s interview with a N.C. State Bureau of Investigation case agent. After going through an extensive review in court of the anatomy of the neck and medical definition of choking, Joachim said it takes “6 to 10 pounds of direct pressure on the trachea to compress a windpipe where there is no airflow.”
The doctor testified that signs and symptoms of choking would include inability to speak, a prevalent discomfort, loss of voice for at least several minutes, hoarseness of voice, shortness of breath, and coughing, as well as coughing up phlegm, neck pain and muscular spasms in the neck. He added that while looking at the video, he saw no symptoms of choking after Johnson used the techniques on Rivers. His medical conclusion was that Rivers was not choked.
Joachim also noted Rivers’ medical records in an examination after his arrest was “remarkable” with no complaints of the symptoms associated with choking. “I noticed he was in essentially an excellent health,” Joachim said.
Upon cross examination of the witness, Temple asked if there is a possibility for someone to be choked but not have an obstruction of the airway that would present symptoms. “I would call that a restraint,” Joachim said, adding that a person could feel that they were choked, when “medically” they were not.
“From a medical perspective it did appear to be a safe procedure,” Joachim said of Johnson’s application of the pressure point techniques.
The trial is scheduled to continue Monday morning in New Hanover County Superior Court.