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Jury acquits Baltimore school police officer in student assault caught on tape

Jurors took about 30 minutes Wednesday to acquit a Baltimore school police officer on charges that she was complicit in the slapping of a student that was caught on tape.

Officer Saverna Bias, 53, was found not guilty of second-degree assault and misconduct in office for the March 2016 incident at the REACH Partnership School, in which another officer was captured on cell phone video striking a then-16-year-old student who the officers believed to be trespassing.

The student and his friend took the stand and testified that Bias told the other officer, Anthony Spence, to slap the student because he had "too much mouth." Bias and Spence also testified, saying the teen spit on Spence and that Spence spontaneously reacted.

"I was startled," Bias testified. "When it was over, I was like, wow, why would you hit that kid?"

Prosecutors urged jurors to accept the teens' account despite inconsistencies. Assistant State's Attorney Kristin Blumer said in closing arguments that while teens may not have perfect memories or want to tell the truth, the officers were conspiring to cover up what happened.

"Don't fall for it," Blumer said.

Defense attorney Steve Levin said Bias was doing her job protecting the school when they identified the teens, who were not wearing school uniforms and couldn't name a single school faculty member, as trespassers. He said Bias had nothing to do with Spence slapping the student.

After the verdict Levin called the case "extremely thin," and said the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office's decision to go forward was "outrageous."

"We're very grateful to the jury, we're thrilled that Officer Bias was acquitted today. Nevertheless, she's been living with this for a year, and there are significant consequences she has suffered," Levin said.

Melba Saunders, spokeswoman for the city State's Attorneys Office, said, "it is always unsettling when we have to try a case involving another public servant, especially those sworn to ensure the safety of our youth. Nonetheless, we will continue to prosecute cases where the rights of our young and impressionable citizens are compromised."

On Tuesday, Spence bypassed a jury trial by entering an Alford plea to one count of second-degree assault, in exchange for probation before judgment and his resignation from the police force. Spence said on the stand Wednesday at Bias' trial: "I was spit on, and I don't want to be spit on."

When the video surfaced last year, it came amid debate about the role of police officers in city schools and led to calls for the Justice Department to include the school force in its civil rights review of Baltimore Police practices. The school police chief was also put on leave, and eventually stepped down citing personal reasons.

At trial Wednesday, prosecutors and the defense sparred over what happened before and after a short cell phone video clip that went viral, with prosecutors saying the case came down to credibility of witnesses.

The victim, who The Sun is not identifying because he is still a juvenile, was enrolled at REACH but had attended school just eight days out of the past 180 school days, he testified. On March 1, he and Deandre Henderson, a non-student, visited the school dressed in street clothes instead of uniforms, and the officers pegged them as trespassers and asked them to leave.

Henderson said they had visited the school so his friend could pick up his backpack from his locker, and their plan was to leave and hang out. The victim, however, said he intended to attend class and had no locker.

When the officers escorted the teens from the school, Bias noticed a knife clipped inside of the student's pocket and confiscated it. He became upset, and said Bias told Spence "to come over and slap me." He denied spitting on Spence.

"I said I wanted to go home, and I started to walk off," he testified. "The next thing I know, I got hit."

The state argued that Bias was guilty of assault by a theory of "accomplice liability," in which someone who aids in or encourages an assault is guilty. For misconduct in office, they argued she was guilty for encouraging an assault as a law enforcement officer and not intervening.

But Bias testified that the school was busy with fights and other calls requiring police attention, and she did not have time to file a report before word had reached school headquarters a few hours later and she was being summoned to meet with a commander.

Bias declined comment after the verdict.

jfenton@baltsun.com

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