NEW YORK – A New York City police officer accused of sodomizing a drug suspect in a subway station was acquitted Monday after defense attorneys spent weeks chipping away at the credibility of the accuser, a self-professed gang member who admitted to smoking pot regularly. Two colleagues were acquitted of a cover-up.
Officer Richard Kern had faced as many as 25 years in prison if convicted of aggravated sexual abuse, while Officers Andrew Morales and Alex Cruz could have gotten up to four years on charges of hindering prosecution.
The defendants' families sighed loudly and cried softly as the verdict was read. After jurors were dismissed, the officers hugged their attorneys and families, and representatives from their union clapped each other on the back.
"I'm glad the system works," Kern said outside court. "I knew coming in this I was innocent. I was going to stand up for my rights and prove my innocence."
The man accusing the officers, Michael Mineo, was not in the courtroom for the verdict. Outside court he said that he had a feeling the case would turn out as it did.
"If you want to commit a murder, join the NYPD," he said, referring to other cases where officers were tried and acquitted in shooting deaths. He said later that he feared for his safety, asking, "Who's going to police the police?"
Mineo has filed a $440 million lawsuit against the city. His attorney, Stephen Jackson, said the lawsuit would continue as planned and would be unaffected by the outcome of the criminal case. They're also planning to ask federal officials to investigate and want the U.S. Marshals Service to protect Mineo.
Mineo said later Monday that his credibility wasn't relevant to the facts of the case and "has nothing to do with me being sodomized."
The 25-year-old Mineo claimed he was assaulted in a Brooklyn subway station on an October afternoon in 2008 after the cops chased him for lighting a joint on the street.
He said that after he was handcuffed, one of the officers sodomized him with a baton. According to Mineo, the officers hauled him to a squad car but got spooked about what they had done and tried to buy his silence by letting him go, even though there was a warrant out for his arrest.
Mineo was hospitalized for days with a small non-penetrating wound, then returned again later for more medical care for an internal abscess.
A transit system police officer who witnessed the struggle testified for the prosecution, but jurors said in a handwritten statement that they found reasonable doubt after examining the evidence. They deliberated just under three days after a trial of nearly four weeks.
In many ways, the case hinged on the believability of Mineo, a self-professed member of the Crips gang who has been arrested several times and says he regularly uses marijuana. On the witness stand, Mineo was agitated, often rolling his eyes or raising his voice.
In juxtaposition, Kern and Morales testified calmly about their Catholic-school upbringing, their Little League coaching and their families as well as the confrontation. Kern is married with three small children.
Defense attorneys worked relentlessly to question Mineo's credibility, arguing he exaggerated the encounter and made up the assault to get a bigger payday from the city.
"The argument that we made, and it still exists, is the man is simply just not credible," said John Patten, who represented Kern.
Mineo told jurors that he ran from the officers partly because he wasn't carrying identification. But Patten produced a photograph of Kern, in uniform, looking at what appears to be an ID card that Mineo had handed to him.
Doctors said Mineo's injuries were consistent with his claims, but defense doctors testified that Mineo could have had a pre-existing medical condition to explain the abscess, and that the officer's alleged actions would have made for severe, irrefutable injuries.
Stuart London, who represented Cruz, said the medical evidence was critical to the outcome.
"The medical evidence can't lie, and there was no injury," he said. "Think about it, they tried to prosecute a sexual assault case without ever calling a doctor who saw an injury."
The case had drawn some comparisons to that of Abner Louima, who was sodomized with a broomstick by an officer in a Brooklyn police station in 1997. But Kenneth Thompson, who prosecuted the case for the U.S. Attorney's office, said the medical evidence then was overwhelming — and that secured the guilty plea of Justin Volpe. He is serving 30 years.
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes said Monday that he never questions jury verdicts.
The Police Department initially questioned Mineo's account and allowed the officers to stay on duty. But the case gained momentum a few weeks afterward when his lawyers went public with his allegations.
Two previous excessive force complaints made against Kern were found to be unsubstantiated, but the city settled with one accuser for $50,000.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who was not present during the trial, said afterward the verdict was "a travesty."
"This jury was not able to consider that at least one of these policemen had been accused of using excessive force before," he said. "We will not live in a city in which the victim becomes examined."
The officers remain on modified duty pending a departmental review.
Morales, one of the officers acquitted of hindering prosecution, thanked his family for supporting him during the trial.
"It was very hard sitting there listening to all the lies," Morales said. Cruz did not speak to reporters.
Asked about his future plans, Kern said: "Hopefully get back on the street and do what I love to do: protect the people of Brooklyn."