A Columbia man on trial for allegedly assaulting Howard County police during a large parking lot brawl in April said Monday that officers beat him after he was handcuffed, bringing up a key issue in his separate, $50 million federal civil lawsuit against the county.
Melvin J. Yates Jr., 24, who has the legal support of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was amid a chaotic crowd just after midnight on April 10, both sides agreed in opening statements during the first day of a jury trial before Judge Richard S. Bernhardt in Howard County Circuit Court.
Yates' attorneys filed a federal civil lawsuit against county Police Chief William McMahon and three officers in June. He claims police assaulted him, falsely imprisoned him and violated his civil rights. In testimony Monday, police made their case against Yates.
Police arriving at the scene said they saw "30 to 50 people fighting, bleeding, yelling and swearing," prosecutor Danielle Duclaux told the jury. One man was arrested after an officer saw him punch another and then pull a knife. "Their goal was to get everyone in their cars and to leave," the restaurant at the corner of U.S. 1 and Guilford Road, Duclaux said.
County prosecutors and police said Yates refused numerous orders to calm down and leave the area before he was arrested. They said he resisted being handcuffed, ripped a police lieutenant's tie and nameplate off his shirt, and had to be forcibly subdued by three officers.
Lt. Joseph Gibbons, a veteran instructor at the county's police academy called the scene "a riot," and said Yates cursed at him and repeatedly refused to leave, though he slowly moved to his car. When he again refused, Gibbons said he tried to arrest and handcuff Yates, who pushed his chest and struggled. He was charged with assault, resisting arrest, failure to obey a lawful order and disorderly conduct.
Police said they used a "lateral vascular neck restraint," a hold that does not choke, but cuts off blood to the brain and can cause subjects to faint briefly. When Yates collapsed because of the hold, the officers said they all fell between two parked cars, Yates hit his face on his rear-view mirror and then on the surface of the lot, officers testified.
But defense attorney Anitha Johnson told the jury that "This is a case about fabrication by the Howard County police department. They threw him against the car and threw him to the ground" after he was handcuffed, she said. Yates was upset that the gathering, which was supposed to celebrate his late father's life, had become a big fight instead and was trying to get others to stop fighting, she said.
"He doesn't know what provoked the officer," Johnson said. "Officers are attempting to cover up their own wrong actions."
Jefferey Sills, co-chairman of the legal redress committee of the Howard County NAACP said the group decided to back Yates after interviewing other witnesses to the events that night, and talking to McMahon and prosecutors. Co-defense counsel John O. Iweanoge asked why damaging details about Yates in officers' testimony were not mentioned in initial police reports.
"I should have been more hyper-detailed," Gibbons said at one point. Yates, a barber, has faced armed robbery, assault and drug possession charges over the past four to five years but was found not guilty in each instance.