The federal judge who dismissed civil rights charges against former Madison, Alabama, police officer Eric Parker, who was tried twice for allegedly slamming an Indian man to the ground during a police stop last year, has ordered a criminal contempt hearing for the department's police chief and a captain.
U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala of the Northern District of Alabama wrote in court papers dated Feb. 24 that there is probable cause to believe Madison Police Chief Larry Muncey and Capt. Terrell Cook, who were subpoenaed as trial witnesses, violated a sequestration order during the first trial, which prohibits a witness from hearing testimony of others called to the stand.
Muncey and Cook, who were excluded from the courtroom, allegedly read media blogs with near word-for-word accounts of testimony, sent a sergeant to court to monitor officers who testified and report back, and discussed testimony of trial witnesses with each other and other witnesses, according to Haikala's order.
During a September fact-finding hearing into the allegations, several officers testified that Muncey's conduct had "made them nervous" and "caused them to fear reprisal for their testimony during the first trial," Haikala wrote in a Jan. 29 opinion.
Haikala scheduled the criminal contempt hearing for March 22 at 9 a.m. and appointed a non-government attorney, Anthony Joseph, to prosecute the misdemeanor charges since attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney's Office might be called as witnesses, the judge's order said. Joseph is a former assistant U.S. attorney and former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
If found guilty, Muncey and Cook could be sentenced to a maximum of 180 days in prison or receive a fine of $5,000 or both.
A woman who answered Muncey's phone Thursday afternoon told NBC News the chief was out of the office. Muncey did not return a message seeking comment. Cook told NBC News, "I'm sure you can understand, but because of the dynamics on it, I am unable to make any comment on it at this time."
Muncey's attorney, Jerry Barclay, told the Associated Press his client never tried to intimidate witnesses or influence their testimony.
"Neither the judge nor the prosecutors suggested to Chief Muncey in any way that he should not monitor the testimony of witnesses, either by following media reports or by having a subordinate keep him apprised of the testimony," Barclay said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. "Consistent with his responsibilities as chief of police, Chief Muncey did his best to keep his finger on the pulse of the Parker case. His role as Chief required him to do no less."
The contempt charges stem from Parker's first trial in September, when he was accused of violating the civil rights of Sureshbhai Patel, a 58 year old who was seriously injured during a police encounter last year. Parker came across Patel on Feb. 6, 2015 while responding to a call of a suspicious black man looking at garages and walking near houses. Patel, in from India to visit his son and grandson, testified that he did not understand English or the officers who confronted him while he was out for a walk.
A widely viewed police dashcam video captured Patel's subsequent police takedown, which resulted in injuries to Patel's spine and partial paralysis.
On Jan. 13, Haikala acquitted Parker, 27, after two trials resulted in hung juries. In her 92-page ruling, Haikala wrote that it was reasonable for Parker to have investigated Patel on the basis of the 911 call, and that slow-motion clips from the dashcam showed Patel had resisted Parker before the takedown. She added that she wouldn't expect a different outcome in a third trial.
Parker still faces state misdemeanor assault charges, to which he pleaded not-guilty, but that trial will likely be delayed since the state court judge assigned to the case is retiring April 1, according to WHNT News 19. It is unclear when she will be replaced, though a status hearing is scheduled for April 20, WHNT News 19 reported. Patel has also filed a civil lawsuit against Parker.
Haikala wrote in her order Wednesday that evidence suggests Muncey and Cook, who declined to testify in September during a fact-finding hearing into the alleged police misconduct, "made an end-run around the court's witness sequestration order and displayed reckless disregard for the administration of justice during a trial in which a criminal defendant's right to a fair trial was at stake."
"The conduct in which Chief Muncey and Captain Cook engaged not only significantly disrupted Mr. Parker's first trial," Haikala continued. "but also eliminated the parties' ability to call either Chief Muncey or Captain Cook as a witness in both of the Parker trials."