FPD excessive force case is wrapping up

February 7, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Jurors listened to closing arguments in the federal trial of four Fresno police officers. The men are accused of obstructing justice after using more force than needed.

U.S. attorneys say these officers intended to cover up what happened even before all the evidence was collected. But defense attorneys told jurors they've shown the defendants used restraint and reasonable force when they had to make a split second decision while handling a violent suspect.

Prosecutors alleged four Fresno police officers began to cover up what happened before they even left the scene at the corner of Dwight and Cedar more than seven years ago.

U.S. Attorney Elana Landau told jurors, "This case is really going to boil down to who you believe."

The accusers are three Fresno police officers who testified about the force they witnessed after they arrived at the call at about 2 a.m.

Officers Martin Van Overbeek, Thomas Hardin Junior and Beau Burger all told the court the force used against a suspect who was not attempting to flee, was unnecessary and unwarranted.

Landau said about the officers who turned the defendants in, "Their memory of the events are etched in their mind. They all searched their souls about what to do with it."

But attorneys representing Michael Manfredi, Chris Coleman, Paul Van Dalen, and Sean Plymale contend the force was appropriate based on what the defendants knew about the suspect, that the accusers may not have known when they got there.

"I don't think they are liars- at all," Paul Goyette said. "I don't think they came in here to lie, I don't think they are inherently dishonest, I think they are disingenuous because they assume, they made a lot of conclusions based on their assumptions."

Although motive is not necessary for prosecutors to prove in the case, they said it finally became clear by listening to the officers own accounts. Landau alleged Coleman and Van Dalen were mad when they used a bean bag gun and kicked the suspect because they believed he had injured a police K-9 and his handler, Sean Plymale.

Landau said, "It wasn't so much as where his hands were (Celdon's), it was I want to punish him for what he has done to my buddy, what he has done to his dog."

The government has alleged the officers started concealing what happened right after the suspect was taken into custody, when a beer bottle was moved more than 100 feet away from the area by Officer Plymale.

"It simply didn't happen," Marshall Hodgkins said. "He was collecting evidence that possibly could have related to the crime, that's what he was doing. He had that evidence collected. He didn't know that it was going to turn out that it had no fingerprints on it at the time."

Jurors must also decide whether each of the officers falsified an official police report to obstruct justice. To be guilty of excessive force jurors must determine whether Officers Coleman and Van Dalen acted willfully and beyond what any reasonable officer would, based on the circumstances.

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