Officer cleared of assault; WPD releases video of arrest that prompted charges

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New Hanover County Court. Staff photo.
New Hanover County Court. Staff photo.

A Wilmington police corporal has been acquitted of two misdemeanor charges in connection with the April 2014 arrest of a teen, and the city’s police chief responded by posting the videos that led to the charges on its YouTube site.

After closing arguments Friday and nearly an hour of deliberation, New Hanover County Superior Court Judge Ebern T. Watson found 51-year-old James Coley Johnson not guilty on charges of simple assault and willful failure to discharge duties. The bench trial began Tuesday, May 31.

The state alleged Johnson, a 25-year veteran of the Wilmington Police Department, “choked” Tyrell Rivers, then 16, on two separate occasions in the back of a patrol vehicle during the teen’s arrest on trespassing and drug charges on April 4, 2014.

The defense, led by attorney Michael McGuinness, maintained Johnson was using two pressure point techniques to subdue the teen, who had become combative and was kicking a rear passenger door of the patrol vehicle.

Watson’s verdict came after hearing from five state witnesses, including Rivers, as well as nine defense witnesses, including Johnson.

Johnson was placed on paid administrative leave on May 14, 2014. Following his indictment and arrest on the charges, Johnson was placed on unpaid leave on June 25, 2014.

During a press conference at police department headquarters shortly after the verdict Friday afternoon, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said Johnson is now on paid administrative leave and will return to the department.

Evangelous spoke on behalf of the police department and referred to the ongoing internal affairs investigation in the case. The chief said the police department made the incident public more than two years ago, after it was discovered on an in-car video recording during a routine internal affairs audit.

“We will complete our internal affairs investigation, which will help us to determine if any policies were violated,” Evangelous said. “I want to assure the citizens of this community, our officers, family and friends that I am committed to conducting a thorough and fair investigation. We will take the appropriate action.”

Internal investigations are “never easy,” said the chief, adding that not only do these types of investigations impact the force, but also the relationship with the community and “challenge the public’s trust.”

Wilmington police cheif Ralph Evangelous speaks to media after Cpl. James Johnson's not guilty verdict in a use of force case.
Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous speaks to the media after Cpl. James Johnson’s not guilty verdict in a use of force case.

In an effort to gain that trust, Evangelous said the police department is releasing the video footage from Johnson’s patrol car on the night of April 4, 2014. The video and the chief’s statement to the community was released on the police department’s Facebook page Friday afternoon. Click here to view those posts.

A civil lawsuit in the case is also pending in federal court. Attorney Katie Parker, with Tin, Fulton, Walker & Owen, is handling the civil case for Rivers. Parker, along with Rivers’ mother, Lytanya Alston, met with reporters outside the courthouse after the verdict. Both said they were not pleased with the outcome of the criminal case.

“A child being 16 years of age that was choked in the back seat of a car in handcuffs is not fair to any child or any person,” Alston said. “I think that these are things that need to be looked into when it comes to our system and I think our system was unfair…on behalf of [Tyrell] and many others.”

Parker said the prosecutor in the case, Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple, did an “amazing job” with the case. She also urged for officers’ accountability in use of force cases.

“We have to have a system in this country where police are held accountable,” Parker said, adding that cases like this are the reason why “there is so much distrust in police in this country.”

Parker said her goal in the civil case is to continue fighting for justice on behalf of Rivers, but the entire Wilmington community. Parker is looking to use the in-car video as evidence in the civil case, adding that answers to the civil complaint in federal court should come in the next couple of weeks.