A federal jury has acquitted two Pomona police officers charged with using excessive force and lying in the arrest of a teenager at the Los Angeles County Fair.
The not guilty verdicts, delivered Friday afternoon in a downtown courtroom, cleared Cpl. Chad Jensen of wrongdoing when he struck a boy, then 16, in the face during the 2015 arrest. Jensen, a 21-year veteran of the Pomona Police Department, and his partner that night, Officer Prince Hutchinson, were also found not guilty of charges that they lied to justify the two blows Jensen delivered to the teen’s face.
It was the second time the officers had gone on trial for the charges. A jury in October could not reach a decision when a lone holdout refused to convict the pair, leading to a mistrial.
In the retrial, government prosecutors stuck largely with the case that had nearly swayed the first jury, arguing that Jensen lost his cool when the teen, Christian Aguilar, ignored his commands and needlessly struck the defenseless Aguilar twice in the face.
They argued to jurors that a short video a bystander recorded of the arrest and another that Aguilar shot on his cellphone proved Jensen and Hutchinson lied when they claimed in their reports and in court testimony that Aguilar instigated the incident.
Attorneys for the officers, however, took a new tack that appeared to pay off. It included calling Aguilar’s brother and cousin to testify, using their accounts to bolster the officers’ version of events.
“We are relieved we had jurors who were willing to look further than the snippet of video presented,” said Michael Schwartz, Jensen’s lawyer.
The officers were indicted last year following an FBI investigation into the nighttime encounter in September 2015, when Aguilar’s father and another adult relative were arrested on suspicion of public intoxication at the Pomona Fairplex. As a group of Pomona officers escorted the men off the fairgrounds, Aguilar followed with a group of people and began recording with his cellphone.
On Aguilar’s video, Jensen is heard calmly asking the teen to stay back from the officers walking with the arrested men. Aguilar scoffs at the request and says he intends to go ahead. Seconds later, Jensen grabs the teen and the video ends.
In the bystander’s video, Jensen has Aguilar against a wall in a nearby alcove. He swings him around and delivers two hard blows with his forearm to the teen’s face before taking him to the ground. Aguilar, who was left with a bloodied lip and other injuries, keeps his arms by his side as he is hit.
As with the first trial, Schwartz argued that Jensen acted reasonably in a tense, fast-moving situation. The attorney told jurors Jensen had no way to know the age of Aguilar, who appeared older and stronger than a typical 16-year-old. And his arm movement as he spun around from the wall, Schwartz said, could have been viewed as an attempt to punch the officer.
The case turned somewhat on the differing accounts both sides gave of how close Aguilar got to his father and the officers escorting him.
In their reports, Jensen and Hutchinson claimed Aguilar moved quickly toward his father, drew close and appeared to be intent on interfering with the officers. Prosecutors argued this was an exaggeration meant to justify Jensen’s response.
Schwartz said he called Aguilar’s brother and cousin, who were at the fair that night, to cast doubt on the prosecutors’ portrayal of Aguilar as “an innocent 16-year-old” and to support the officers’ account of what occurred.
He said he pressed the cousin, for example, on the statement he gave to FBI agents during the investigation in which he described Aguilar as being agitated and confrontational with police. And the brother, Schwartz said, told agents he saw Aguilar quickly closing the distance to his father when Jensen intervened.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said the office was “disappointed with the verdict.”
David Gammill, an attorney for Aguilar and his family, said, “We believe the videos, Pomona’s settlement and common sense show the truth of what truly happened that night.”
In 2016, the city of Pomona paid Aguilar $500,000 to settle a civil lawsuit over the beating. Jensen and Hutchinson, who have been on paid leave, still face an internal investigation, which was put on hold until the criminal case was resolved.
That internal investigation was initially handled by a Pomona officer who himself got in the crosshairs of federal investigators. Sgt. Michael Neaderbaomer is awaiting trial on charges of obstruction of justice on allegations that he tried to dissuade Aguilar’s mother from filing a complaint about Jensen by telling her he had a video showing her son trying to hit the officer and insisting the teen would have to meet alone with police officials if he wanted to make a complaint.
Neaderbaomer is also charged with lying to FBI agents when he denied the exchange with Aguilar’s mother.
For more news on federal courts in Southern California, follow me on Twitter: @joelrubin