On a cold October night in 2005, a group of Fresno police officers confronted domestic-violence suspect Rolando Celdon as he lay in the dirt, moaning in pain, with a police dog clamped onto his ankle.
Some of the officers slugged and kicked Celdon and shot him with a bean-bag shotgun. The other officers just watched.
A federal criminal trial that began Wednesday in Fresno will explore whether Sgt. Michael Manfredi and former officers Paul Van Dalen, Chris Coleman and Sean Plymale used excessive force while arresting Celdon and then tried to cover it up.
It is the second time the four defendants will stand trial in U.S. District Court on civil-rights violations and obstruction-of-justice charges in connection with the Oct. 10, 2005, arrest of Celdon.
In their first trial, a different jury in February last year said they were hopelessly deadlocked 9-3 to find them not guilty of any crimes. The jury came to its conclusion after listening to five weeks of testimony, but deliberating only four hours.
Celdon, who is from Mexico, didn't testify in the first trial. Prosecutors don't plan to call him as a witness in the second trial, either.
Another witness who won't be testifying is Celdon's former girlfriend, Veronica Rivera, whose frantic 911 call led to his arrest. She told police that Celdon had broken into her southeast Fresno apartment and assaulted her in front of her young child.
Rivera testified in the first trial. She died recently, lawyers said.
The Celdon case is the latest in a series involving the Fresno Police Department and allegations that it uses excessive force when tangling with suspects.
Two years ago, a federal jury found that Fresno police Sgt. Mike Palomino used excessive force when he shot and killed Steven Vargas, who was unarmed but high on drugs in October 2009. The city agreed to pay $1.3 million to Vargas' family.
Just last month, another federal jury ruled that former Fresno police officer Greg Catton used excessive force in the 2009 shooting death of 23-year-old Stephen Willis. The jury initially awarded $1.5 million in damages, saying Catton's negligence caused Willis' wrongful death. But the award was reduced to $300,000 because jurors said Willis also contributed to his own death.
While Palomino and Catton were tried in civil court, Manfredi, Coleman, Van Dalen and Plymale face criminal charges and could go to prison for up to 20 years if convicted.
After his arrest, Celdon told investigators that he ran from officers because he was afraid of the police dog. Police reports said he also told officers he had ingested methamphetamine, but toxicology reports later showed he was not under the influence.
The city paid Celdon $67,500 to settle his excessive-force claim — even though he was later deported to Mexico after being convicted of stalking Rivera and striking her.
In court, Coleman and Van Dalen are each charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law. An indictment accuses Coleman of using a 12-gauge shotgun to repeatedly shoot Celdon with less-than-lethal ammunition.
Van Dalen is accused of kicking Celdon at least twice in the upper body and stomping on his injured ankle.
Plymale and Manfredi are each charged with concealing the alleged assault by Coleman and Van Dalen. All four defendants are charged with one count of falsifying an official report to obstruct justice.
After Celdon's arrest, Police Chief Jerry Dyer put Manfredi, Plymale, Coleman and Van Dalen on administrative leave before eventually firing them. Dyer also asked the FBI to investigate.
Manfredi won his job back through an arbitrator and a civil service review board. An arbitrator ruled Plymale should be reinstated, too, but he chose to work for the Madera Police Department. Coleman and Van Dalen left police work.
Wednesday, defense attorneys said in opening statements their clients were innocent of the charges and that they had to use force because Celdon was combative and refused to surrender.
"They had to make split-second decisions," said attorney Paul Goyette, who is defending Coleman.
Both sides agreed that Plymale first spotted Celdon on Cedar Avenue near California Avenue — a few blocks from his girlfriend's home. It was 2 a.m. and Plymale was alone with Celdon in a tough part of town.
The other defendants got scared, Goyette said, because Plymale was not in radio contact. While the defendants sped to the scene, Celdon ran from Plymale and climbed a chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. With Plymale's dog Tymo clamped onto Celdon's ankle, he managed to pull the 70-pound dog over the fence.
What happened next will determine whether the defendants used excessive force.
Goyette said two kinds of officers showed up at the crime scene: those that spring into action and those that sat on the sidelines.
Goyette told the jury that the testimony of Fresno police officers Martin Van Overbeek, Tom Hardin Jr. and Beau Burger, who watched the defendants arrest Celdon, should be scrutinized.
Attorney Harry Stern, who is representing Van Dalen, said it more bluntly: "I'm not going to call them liars," but he explained the three officers didn't have a clear understanding of how Celdon posed a serious threat.
All three officers testified in the first trial that Celdon posed no threat when Coleman fired six or seven bean-bag rounds at him and when Van Dalen kicked him in the side at least twice. They also said they never saw a weapon near Celdon when he was taken into custody.
But Stern said Plymale had to slug Celdon in the face because he was hitting Tymo. Coleman had to shoot Celdon because he was not complying with police commands to surrender, Stern said.
Kicking someone isn't pretty, Stern said, referring to Van Dalen, but it is an accepted police practice and officers are trained to use their feet.
Prosecutors Jared Fishman, David Reese and Kevin Rooney, however, gave a different account as to what happened.
They contend Coleman and Van Dalen laughed as they shot and kicked Celdon — even when he was handcuffed. When Coleman complained that he could have shot Celdon in his genitals, Van Dalen spread Celdon's legs and encouraged Coleman to shoot Celdon in the testicles, the prosecutors said.
Afterward, they tried to cover up their actions by writing a false police report, saying Celdon was armed with a bottle and stick, the prosecutor said. One of the defendants also planted evidence — a beer bottle — at the crime scene, Reese said. "They dishonored their oath and dishonored their badges," Reese told the jury.
But defense lawyers said the reports were still in draft form and were not finalized as official reports.
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