- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2012

An unarmed college student beaten by police after a University of Maryland basketball team victory in 2010 was an aggressive agitator who police thought could pose a threat to their safety, said an attorney for one of two officers now facing criminal charges in connection with the beating.

During opening statements in the trial in Prince George’s County Circuit Court on Monday, William Brennan, an attorney for Officer Reginald Baker, said the student also tried to hit his client — a charge that student John “Jack” McKenna disputed during his later testimony.

A videotape of the encounter, which was replayed repeatedly during witness testimony, shows Officer Baker pushing the then-21-year-old student up against a wall with a riot shield and both Officer Baker and Officer James Harrison striking him with a baton as he crumples to the ground.

“What McKenna does is he fights back,” Mr. Brennan said, showing still photos from the videotaped encounter and pointing to what he said is Mr. McKenna’s arm lifted above Officer Baker’s riot shield after he is slammed into a concrete wall.

While unable to recall details of the approximately 10-second-long ordeal, Mr. McKenna described his movement as defensive and denied intentionally swinging at the officer.

“It looks like he hits my stomach and my hand flew forward,” Mr. McKenna testified, adding the next thing he remembered was sitting handcuffed in the back of a paddy wagon while a cut on his head profusely bled.

Prince George’s County police Officers Baker and Harrison each face charges of first- and second-degree assault, as well as misconduct in office in connection with Mr. McKenna’s beating.

“Those strikes were lawful, were justified and were not police brutality,” Mr. Brennan said.

Students took to the streets of College Park the night of March 3, 2010, to celebrate after the Maryland men’s basketball team defeated rival Duke. Similar celebrations had a history of getting out of control — with people shutting down the main thoroughfare in College Park and rioters setting fires and uprooting street signs.

Defense attorneys characterized the two officers as “foot soldiers” who were following commanders’ orders for “zero tolerance” with agitators trying to incite the crowd that night.

But prosecutors described the veteran police officers’ actions as an abuse of power.

“They must be held accountable for their actions,” Assistant State’s Attorney Joseph Ruddy said.

Mr. McKenna described drinking beer and whiskey with friends while watching the basketball game on television before heading out to the College Park streets to be part of the celebratory atmosphere. He skipped down the sidewalk through throngs of people, eventually coming face to face with two police officers on horseback after he broke through the crowd.

“I’m a big kid. I had a lot of momentum. I stopped as soon as I could,” said 6-foot-3 Mr. McKenna.

Video shows three officers rush him a moment later, striking him with batons until he falls to the ground.

One of the two mounted Maryland-National Capital Park Police officers that Mr. McKenna is seen approaching in the video testified Monday that she ordered Mr. McKenna to go back up the street but that he did not obey. But after officers rushed Mr. McKenna, Sgt. Yasmin Brown said she did not see officers striking him because she was concentrating on getting her horse back into formation after it became agitated.

Eight staples were required to close a wound on the top of Mr. McKenna’s head, and pictures taken a few days after the incident show swelling and bruising of his hand and upper arm where he was struck with batons.

Mr. McKenna was arrested along with 32 others that night. He was charged with disorderly conduct and assault on a police officer. The charges were dropped after video of the beating surfaced, contradicting officers’ accounts of the incident in charging documents. Only a brief mention of the charges was made Monday, but nothing was said of sworn statements that other officers prepared — which stated Mr. McKenna and another student struck the horses and mounted officers.

Of the 33 people charged with crimes from the incidents around the university that night, police dropped the charges in 29 of those cases.

Officers Baker and Harrison were suspended with pay when the criminal charges from Mr. McKenna’s beating were filed and have remained on administrative leave pending the trial, said Assistant Police Chief Kevin Davis, who was among the multiple police officers who sat in on portions of the trial Monday.

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