HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The jury was seated this afternoon for the federal civil rights trial of a former Madison police officer accused of using excessive force against an Indian grandfather. The February encounter that left Sureshbhai Patel partially paralyzed was described in starkly different terms during the opening statements.
The 11-woman, 3-man, jury, which includes two alternates, will hear the case in front of U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala.
The defense maintains that Eric Parker, whose first federal trial last month ended in a hung jury, was following police training and that the “tragic” situation escalated due to Patel’s failure to comply with police orders.
Defense attorney Robert Tuten also warned jurors not to simply look at the now-internationally famous video of Parker taking down Patel, but rather to consider the totality of circumstances.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Posey said Patel was simply out for a walk a short distance from his son’s home on a cold Friday morning a few days after arriving in the U.S. He said Parker and the younger officer he was training responded to a call by a Patel neighbor about a suspicious man walking in the neighborhood.
Posey said the police approached Patel and he waved to them. Patel told officers “No English” five times and “India” three times and pointed to the house where he was living. Posey said Patel made no sudden movements and did not run away from officers.
Parker intervened at some point in the encounter, which had been led by the trainee officer. Posey said Parker grew frustrated with Patel, telling him he would put him on the ground if he kept jerking away while the officer tried to pat him down. Parker can be seen on the video, asking several times, “Do you understand?”
Posey said as a second police car approached, Parker suddenly swept Patel’s legs out from under him, slamming him headfirst to the frozen ground. The move left Patel partially paralyzed.
Parker knew he’d gone too far and changed his story over time about Patel not talking his hands out of his pockets, Posey told jurors. Parker also asked a dispatcher to look for crimes in the neighborhood to suggest he had stronger probable cause for the encounter with Patel.
Posey said the evidence will show there was no good reason for what Parker did to Patel.
“He knew what he did was wrong,” Posey said.
Tuten told jurors a different story.
He focused on the fact that Patel walked away from officers three times and jerked his shoulder away during Parker’s efforts to frisk him.
Parker only intervened when the trainee officer hadn’t taken proper control of the encounter with Patel, Tuten said. He told the jury that the case is not about racial profiling, but rather, “about a police officer doing his job.”
Parker had been a Madison police officer for about two years at the time of the incident. Tuten told jurors that Patel had only been in the U.S. this time for a short time, but he’d visited the country several times and recognized the police.
He stressed that in any encounter police are worried about controlling the other person’s hands. Patel didn’t take his hands out of his pockets, Tuten argued, and Parker had no way of knowing if he had a gun, knife or other weapon.
“All police want is a little bit of respect, a little bit of time to do their job,” Tuten said. If Patel had cooperated, officers would have figured the situation out, Tuten said. That failure to cooperate, he argued, led to Parker taking him down. He said Parker’s takedown was aimed at throwing Patel onto the grass, rather than the sidewalk where they were standing.
Federal prosecutors want to call Parker’s actions a crime, Tuten said, but the escalation and use of force was due to Patel’s actions.
“You come to the U.S, we expect you to follow our laws, to speak our language,” he said. “Mr. Patel bears as much responsibility in this as anyone.”
The judge told the jury to return at 9 a.m. Wednesday for the start of testimony.