Three Philadelphia police officers were cleared yesterday of assault and other charges arising from a Grays Ferry man’s contention that he had been beaten and burned with a hot light bulb during a 1988 drug raid.
A courtroom full of police officers, anti-drug activists and friends of the defendants erupted in cheers when Municipal Judge Michael J. Conroy found Walter Kilgo, Robert Nesmith and Mary Williamson not guilty of all charges after a two-day, nonjury trial.Conroy said he found the defense’s witnesses – who included Kilgo and Nesmith – more believable. He said prosecution witnesses had contradicted each other “in a substantial manner.”
The case arose from Bland Griffin Jr.’s contention that he was beaten with a flattened blackjack and burned repeatedly on the back with a light bulb the night of Dec. 9, 1988, as police officers searched his house and demanded to know if he had drugs or money.
Prosecutor Anthony Wzorek argued that the best evidence was color photographs, taken days after the raid, of six pear-shaped burns on Griffin’s back. “Two pictures are worth a thousand words,” Wzorek said.
But five police officers testified yesterday that they had no idea how Griffin had been burned, and could only theorize that he had rolled against a fallen lamp as he struggled with police. He was “like a wild bull,” Nesmith testified.
Afterward, Nesmith contended that he had been “put through hell” for the last year. He contended that prosecutors and the news media had rushed to judgment against him in an anti-police atmosphere he said was fostered by the videotaping of Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King.
Nesmith’s attorney, Jack J. McMahon, had argued in court that the prosecution case was “an insult,” based on the word of Griffin, whom he called “nothing more than a two-bit drug seller.”
Griffin conceded that he had sold $10 bags of cocaine, but said he had no drugs in the house when police arrived that night.
Wzorek tried without success to persuade Conroy that inconsistencies in the testimony of Griffin and other prosecution witnesses were irrelevant, and that the police had offered no reasonable explanation for how Griffin had ended up with six burns on his back, chest and shoulders after police raided his house.
Griffin contended Kilgo and Nesmith tortured him in his bedroom as a dozen officers, armed with a search warrant, combed the house for drugs and money. He testified that the officers took turns assaulting him and demanding to know where he had hidden drugs and money.
First, Griffin said, Nesmith beat him on the thighs with a flattened blackjack; then Kilgo repeatedly pressed a bare light bulb against his bare torso. Williamson came into the room and hit him once in the face with a flattened blackjack, Griffin testified.
No drugs were found that night. Griffin was charged with assaulting the police, but those charges were later dropped.
From the stand yesterday, police officers said they had no idea how Griffin had been burned. Asked if he’d tortured Griffin, Kilgo told his attorney, Mark E. Gottlieb: “I’m looking at you under oath. No, I did not.” Both he and Nesmith said a scuffle began when they found Griffin in his bedroom and he tried to get away.
The officers did not deny using blackjacks. Both testified that Nesmith struck Griffin several times on the thighs while Kilgo hit him in the chest. They said the struggle continued until Griffin was handcuffed.
The officers testified yesterday that they never saw Griffin being burned, and never heard him scream or even complain of being burned.
That differed from their original account. On the night of the raid, Kilgo and Nesmith reported that Griffin had burned his back when he rolled on a light bulb during the scuffle.
Yesterday, Kilgo and Nesmith said they didn’t learn of the burns until they were told that Griffin had sought medical treatment that night. The theory that Griffin had rolled against the lamp, Kilgo testified, was just that: ”Due to the fact that we had wrestled, a lamp had fallen, and he was wiggling back and forth – to me, that was the only possible way he could have gotten hurt.”
The officers’ testimony was backed up by two ranking officers who were at the scene that night. James F. Hall, the district lieutenant, and Joseph O’Connor, then the district captain, said they were in Griffin’s house when the beating and burning was supposed to have taken place, and that neither had occurred.
Hall said he heard scuffling upstairs and went up the steps. There, he testified, he saw Griffin struggling with the other officers. Hall said he kept the rest of the squad out of the room, since Kilgo and Nesmith had things under control. Within moments, Hall testified, Griffin was handcuffed and in the living room – and never complained of any torture.
O’Connor – who had previously told internal affairs officers that he had no real memory of the incident – was far more certain of events in his testimony yesterday.
Now a police inspector, O’Connor testified: “There are things I have no doubt about. Those three officers didn’t torture or beat anybody at that location. I know those officers.”
Griffin had contended that before the torture occurred, a commanding officer had warned him he’d be “beaten” if he did not reveal where his drugs and money were hidden. O’Connor testified that he was the commanding officer, but that Griffin was lying. “I don’t make threats,” O’Connor said.
The officers’ testimony was in sharp contrast to that of a neighbor and a friend, who both testified that they were outside the house that night and heard Griffin inside, yelling for the police to stop.
Griffin contended that he could barely walk after the beating. Hospital records support that version. But the police testified that they saw nothing
physically wrong with him.
The prosecution’s case had problems. Griffin contended that he went downstairs to open the door for police, but a woman in the house testified otherwise. A friend testified that he saw the light in the bedroom get darker and lighter, but no one else testified to that.
And Griffin contended that days later, he found some skin stuck to the bulb, but a friend testified that he saw no such thing.
Brian McMonagle, Williamson’s attorney, called Griffin’s testimony ”vicious, lying accusations. Bland Griffin will always be a lying, filthy
drug dealer.” He contended that the case had been fueled by The Inquirer’s articles about Griffin’s account, and that the newspaper cared “more about a
drug dealer than about good policemen,” and by a prosecutor who did not stop to examine the facts.
Wzorek, in his closing argument, tried to convince Conroy otherwise. “This is a very emotional case,” he told the judge. The prosecution, he said, ”tells members of the Philadelphia Police Department what they can and cannot do in a search; that they are bound” by the Constitution, “just like anybody else.”
The city has settled Griffin’s civil-rights lawsuit for $75,000 earlier this year after the City Solicitor’s Office concluded that Griffin could probably persuade a civil jury he was telling the truth.
Attorneys for the officers said yesterday that their clients would seek reinstatement to the Police Department.