Closing arguments set in Pittsburgh police retrial

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PITTSBURGH – A federal lawsuit that accuses three white Pittsburgh police officers of wrongfully arresting and beating a young black man because he said they assumed he was a drug dealer is headed to a jury for deliberations today.


Attorneys for plaintiff Jordan Miles and for the three officers gave closing arguments Thursday, providing differing accounts of what happened that frigid night four years ago and disagreeing on who was really the victim.


Miles’ lawyer, Joel Sansone, said police “executed a little frontier justice” in the January 2010 encounter when they apparently assumed Miles, then a dreadlocked 18-year-old student at the city’s performing arts high school, was a drug dealer.


The officers contend their actions were justified. And Robert Leight, attorney for Officer Richard Ewing, who now works for a suburban police department, said his client and city officers David Sisak and Michael Saldutte are the victims.


“Jordan’s wounds have healed. He’s fine now,” Leight said, gesturing to photos of Miles’ swollen face and head, misshapen from the beating. “But these officers have continued to bear this perception that they’re bad cops, that they’re rogue cops.”


The all-white jury was sent home with instructions from U.S. District Judge David Cercone to return today.


Another jury two years ago rejected Miles’ claims officers maliciously prosecuted him by filing charges including assault and resisting arrest, which were later dismissed. But the panel deadlocked on whether Miles was wrongfully arrested and whether police used excessive force. The retrial on those claims began more than two weeks ago.


Miles contends he was talking on his cellphone to his girlfriend while walking a block to his grandmother’s house, where he routinely spent the night, when the plainclothes officers rolled up in an unmarked car asking for money, drugs and a gun without identifying themselves. His lawyers contend that practice, which police denied using, is commonly known as a “jump out” and used to put suspected drug dealers on the defensive.


The officers maintain they flashed their badges and yelled “Police!” and stopped Miles only because he appeared to be lurking near a neighbor’s home. Saldutte testified Miles panicked and ran after being asked why he was “sneaking around” – and the confrontation escalated when Miles allegedly elbowed Saldutte in the head, then kicked Sisak in the knee, before officers mistook a “bulge” in Miles’ coat pocket for a gun.


The officers contend the bulge was caused by a bottle of Mountain Dew. Miles denies ever having a bottle of soda, which the officers said they threw away.


Another difference in their accounts – the police claim Sisak tackled Miles through a shrub, which neighbors said was badly damaged and had two dreadlocks hanging from it the next morning, but Miles claims that never happened. He said after his arrest and while handcuffed, a twig became wedged in his lip from being beaten with a tree branch or, possibly, Sisak’s flashlight. The officer testified he lost the flashlight that night.


The officers contend Miles was never beaten after he was handcuffed, though they acknowledge punching and kneeing him as they struggled to cuff him and fought to keep Miles’ hands away from what they believed to be a gun.


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