UPPER MARLBORO — Two police officers abused their power when they beat up a University of Maryland student during a rowdy post-game celebration two years ago, a prosecutor said during opening statements of an assault trial.
But lawyers for the officers described their clients as mere “foot soldiers” who followed their commanders’ orders and used legal and appropriate force to subdue a student during a riot they believed was at risk of spiraling out of control.
The contrasting depictions of the encounter emerged Monday at the start of the trial for James Harrison and Reginald Baker, two Prince George’s County police officers accused of repeatedly striking John McKenna with batons as jubilant Maryland students streamed into the streets of College Park to celebrate the men’s basketball team’s 79-72 win over Duke on March 3, 2010. The officers, both members of the department’s special operations division, are charged with first- and second-degree assault and misconduct in office.
Jurors saw a video of that night’s encounter showing McKenna half-skipping, half-jogging down the sidewalk, his arms raised in celebration. He appears to stop when he comes near officers on horseback. Baker can be seen initially striking McKenna, who suffered a head injury and other wounds. Harrison runs over later and also hits him. The officers left McKenna on the ground, and he was arrested.
“Did you hear that noise?” prosecutor Joseph Ruddy asked the jury, slapping his hand for emphasis on the wooden railing, after they watched the video. “That was a baton striking John McKenna over and over again.”
“It’s a sound,” he continued, “that made every one of those students turn and run.”
“It’s a sound that John McKenna will never forget.”
Lawyers for both sides cast the encounter in starkly different terms, with prosecutors painting McKenna as an unarmed and hapless victim of police brutality who was arrested despite his evident injuries and who went hours without medical care. Defense lawyers portrayed him as an agitator who ignored police commands to stop and turn around and who was perceived to be a threat as he ran forward with his arms outstretched and his fists clenched.
They said the officers’ conduct was justified in the midst of a riot in which other students, apparently determined to shut down Route 1 — the central north-south thoroughfare that runs through campus — were climbing up poles, setting fires, tearing down street signs and destroying property.
“This was not a celebration of students at their dormitory, at fraternity row,” said William Brennan, a lawyer for Baker. “Rather, this was, in fact, a riot.”
The lawyers portrayed the officers as reluctant participants in the melee who even rooted against Maryland in hopes of a tamer and more controlled student reaction. They said the decision to deploy the department’s civil disturbance unit, and to have the officers respond with shields and batons, was made not by Baker or Harrison but by their commanders.
Baker and Harrison, both veteran members of the department, were indicted last year following a lengthy investigation that involved FBI interviews with many officers.