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Homicide

Former Phoenix police officer convicted of aggravated assault

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Sept. 3, 2013: Phoenix Police Officer Richard Chrisman testifies about firing his weapon at Danny Frank Rodriguez in Oct. 2010 in the living room of a South Phoenix trailer in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix.AP/The Republic

A former Phoenix police officer who put a gun to a suspect's head when the man questioned him about entering his house without a warrant was convicted of aggravated assault Tuesday, but a jury failed to reach a verdict on a second-degree murder charge he faced for shooting and killing the man later in the confrontation.

Jurors hearing the case against Richard Chrisman deliberated for about four days before announcing their verdict Tuesday.

Chrisman was charged after his partner said he fatally shot 29-year-old Danny Rodriguez and his dog without justification during an October 2010 confrontation at a south Phoenix mobile home. Chrisman, a nine-year veteran of the force, was later fired.

He faced the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge for allegedly putting a gun to Rodriguez's head. That charge carries a five- to 15-year sentence, with a presumptive term of 7 1/2 years in state prison.

The jury was hung on animal cruelty charges.

In court Tuesday, Chrisman wore a dark suit and showed no reaction as the verdict was read. At one point before jurors entered the courtroom, he reached back and squeezed the hand of his wife, who was seated behind him. Other Chrisman supporters at the hearing included more than a dozen off-duty police officers. Family members of Rodriguez sat in the front row on the other side.

After the verdict was read, Chrisman, 39, was taken into custody, and his wife broke down in sobs. Rodriguez's mother, Elvira Fernandez, was hugged by a woman sitting with her and left the court without comment.

Judge Warren Granville said the jury would reconvene Tuesday afternoon to hear aggravating circumstances that could allow him to impose the maximum sentence.

Prosecutor Juan Martinez and defense lawyer Craig Mehrens left without comment. Joe Clure, president of the police union, said he respected the jury's work but disagreed with the verdict.

"I believe this decision exemplifies how difficult it is to be a cop today in this country," Clure said.

He noted the trial lasted more than a month, and jurors deliberated for four days. "Rich had a split second to make his decision," Clure said.

The case, to a large degree, boiled down to conflicting accounts from Chrisman and his partner, officer Sergio Virgillo -- the only two people, besides Rodriguez, inside the trailer to witness the escalating confrontation.

Rodriguez's mother had called police to the home on Oct. 5, 2010, saying her son was violent.

Chrisman and Virgillo confronted Rodriguez at the door of his mother's trailer, and Chrisman forced his way inside.

Rodriguez asked to see a warrant, and prosecutors said Chrisman then put his pistol against Rodriguez's head and told him he didn't need one. Mehrens told jurors that didn't happen, but Martinez said DNA on the officer's pistol and a bruise on the dead man's temple show it happened the way Virgillo testified.

The two officers had difficulty controlling Rodriguez, and both fired their stun guns with little effect. Chrisman used pepper spray on Rodriguez, then shot his dog. Prosecutors say the animal was not threatening the officers.

Virgillo said Rodriguez then got his bicycle and tried to leave the tiny trailer home, but Chrisman wouldn't allow it, and a tussle began. Virgillo testified that Rodriguez was backing away and no longer a threat when Chrisman fired, but Chrisman told jurors he was afraid Rodriguez was going to "smash my brains in" with the bike.

Mehrens said at the end of the five-week trial that Virgillo made up a story that led to the charges and there was no reason a veteran officer who had never fired his gun in the line of duty would snap one day and kill a suspect for no reason.

Mehrens said Virgillo's testimony was designed to protect him from allegations that he left his partner alone in a dangerous situation because he was scared.

Martinez said the defense was trying to work around the facts to clear Chrisman.

No decision has been made on whether to retry Chrisman on the second-degree murder charges, said Jerry Cobb, spokesman for Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

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