ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sensational video footage notwithstanding, a state court jury today cleared former Albuquerque Police Department officer Connor Rice of charges he committed aggravated battery on one suspect and battery of another.
The jury returned its verdict before noon after hearing three days of testimony from both officers and the young men who said they had been battered during a police investigation of suspected drug activity in Mesa Verde Park in Albuquerque.
Rice’s mother broke into tears as the impact of the verdict sank in. Members of his family were at the trial daily.
Assistant District Attorney Tim Callaway, who prosecuted the case, said he respects the jury verdict.
“Officers are afforded additional protections under New Mexico law, so it’s often very difficult to obtain a conviction when an officer is a defendant,” he said.
Of the credibility of the alleged victims, he said, “In a case like this, credibility is always at issue. The state felt that the video was its strongest piece of evidence.”
The video showed an encounter on May 31, 2012, between APD bike patrol officers and four men at a picnic table in a park and of a series of events that unfurled afterward. One man was arrested for having small, street-level quantities of drugs and paraphernalia, and another started to run.
The chase drew other officers in cars and more backup, including a canine unit.
Before the chase was over, police had gone to the apartment Kenny Box, one of the park foursome who had headed home, and broken down the door because they suspected he was harboring the fleet-footed suspect, Dion Alexander.
Box was tased several times in the noise and confusion of officers yelling commands while Box tried to get up to retrieve his pit bull terrier out of fear the dog would get shot.
Alexander was eventually encountered by Rice’s partner, Ron Surran, and Rice arrived soon afterward, hastily dismounting his bike, running toward Alexander and delivering three swift blows that he testified were a “distraction technique” allowed by police protocol when subjects are noncompliant.
Rice, in a brief interview after the verdict, said he felt immense relief at hearing the verdict.
Asked if any particular evidence was significant, he said, “The truth. Honest, the truth.”
Rice, 32, testified in his own defense as the final witness, telling the jury, as had other officers at the scene, that he acted as he’d been trained to do.
APD terminated him after an Internal Affairs investigation, and he is appealing that decision. He declined to comment on that case.
For the last 15 months, he said, he has been spending time with his two young children and his family and friends.
“I want to thank the jury for actually being interested in what the truth was,” he said.
Rice said he doesn’t know if he has a future in law enforcement.
“I loved my job, I can tell you that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the next chapter in my life.”
A jury has found Albuquerque Police Department bike patrol officer Connor Rice not guilty of battery and aggravated battery in the beating of a man who was surrendering.
The case went to the jury late Wednesday afternoon. They announced they had reached a verdict just before 11 a.m Thursday morning.
More information will be available shorty.
That word has cropped up repeatedly during trial testimony and argument about the amount of force used by former Albuquerque Police Department bike patrol officer Connor Rice, and whether the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Rice is charged with aggravated battery in connection with his entry into the apartment of Kenneth Box on May 31, 2012, and Tasing him two or three times – statements have varied.
Rice is also charged with battery on Dion Alexander, who bolted during an initial encounter with Rice and was finally stopped after leading officers on a chase over barbed wire and broken down fences throughout a high-crime neighborhood, near Central and east of the state fairgrounds.
Both charges are misdemeanors, belying the intense scrutiny the case brought on APD because of the lapel videos of Rice and fellow officer Ron Surran. The videos show officers forcing their way into Box’s apartment and Tasing him amid loud barking of dogs, and then Alexander’s arrest. The video shows Surran’s foot on the side of Alexander’s head and Rice later striking him.
The sensational footage was widely disseminated on local media broadcasts and websites.
Assistant District Attorney Tim Callaway said in his closing that the videos comprise the only evidence that shows no bias. They also show Rice as angry and failing to make the decisions that a reasonable officer would.
He singled out quotes carved from the video, like one in which Rice says, “We’re gonna spin this one until we’re (expletive) rock solid.”
Rice, the final witness in the case, said that particular snippet dealt with internal politics of the department and the resentment of rank-and-file toward bosses perceived as hoarding all the glory.
Defense attorney Molly Schmidt Nowara urged jurors to put aside the emotional punch of the videos and resist the 20/20 hindsight urged by the prosecution.
“The state wants you to come back 15 months later and parse the decision made in a split second,” she said, telling the jury that the state must prove that Rice acted unlawfully. The state’s case rests on Box and Alexander, she said, adding that they simply are not credible. They acted erratically on the day in question and in testimony Monday admitted that they had lied to police that day and fueled suspicions of wrongdoing.
Jurors were treated during the trial to testimony about police procedures including “reactive control model” – a color-coded scale showing the amount of force officers may use in response to situations – and “distraction techniques” including closed-fist strikes used to divert attention from a noncompliant subject.
Rice testified that when he came up on Alexander, who was lying on his stomach on a grassy area after Surran approached him, he used three short strikes as a distraction to get Alexander to stop bucking and moving so he could be handcuffed.
At least three other officers who responded to the callout that day testified that they did not see Rice use inappropriate force on Alexander, who they said was moving and not complying.
That was in contrast to Alexander’s testimony.
Alexander told the jury he said, “I surrender,” and lay down with his hands behind his back, but Rice testified that isn’t what he did.
The decision on reasonableness is now in the hands of the jury.
Second Judicial District Judge Judith Nakamura denied a defense motion for a mistrial based on Schmidt Nowara’s argument that Assistant District Attorney Nicholas Gilbert’s rebuttal was improper in several ways, including shifting the burden of proof to the defense.
The jury resumes deliberations today.