A 24-year-old Columbia barber who claimed Howard County police beat him during an arrest this spring was found not guilty Wednesday night of assaulting police and resisting arrest, but was found guilty on two other charges.
Melvin J. Yates Jr. was sentenced by Judge Richard S. Bernhardt to unsupervised probation before judgment and fined $100 for disorderly conduct and failing to obey a police officer during a melee just after midnight April 10 outside Cazabe's restaurant in Jessup. He filed a $50 million federal civil suit Sept. 29, alleging brutality against four officers, though a similar suit filed in June was dismissed without appeal in August.
Yates had no comment after the verdict and sentencing but Anitha Johnson, one of his two lawyers, said "We respect the jury's verdict and we're overall happy with the outcome of the case." The jury deliberated for six hours, returning a verdict at 11 p.m.
By accepting PBJ, Yates gave up any chance to appeal, but his record can be expunged in three years if he isn't convicted of any new offense. Prosecutors had asked for a suspended jail term, opposing PBJ, but also had no comment after sentencing. The maximum sentence for each conviction is 60 days in jail plus a fine. Johnson said she will pursue the civil case. County police are conducting an internal inquiry.
Bernhardt said that since Yates is working, is a father, had no prior criminal convictions, and evidence did not show intoxication, he felt PBJ was appropriate, especially since the celebration that sparked the fight was "a memorial event." Yates' arrest and hours spent in Howard County's Central Booking facility "is part of the punishment," Bernhardt said..
The crux of the dispute was outlined in the two competing versions of what happened that night after a fight broke out at a party Yates' sister organized to honor the memory of their father, who had died in an accident a year earlier.
County police testified that they were called for a fight and arrived to find 40 to 50 people in the parking lot, yelling, screaming, fighting and unwilling to listen to police orders to calm down and go home. Several officers testified that Yates was extremely angry, loud, and drawing attention, which was making things worse.
He testified he was not loud, and was obeying police and going to his car when he was arrested, handcuffed and slammed to the ground for no reason.
Lt. Joseph Gibbons testified that despite repeated police warnings to calm down and leave, Yates was "beating on the hood of a car, yelling, screaming," and attracting more people from the crowd. Finally, Gibbons said he and two other officers moved to arrest Yates, but with one handcuff on, Yates turned and ripped the tie and nameplate off Gibbons' uniform. Yates was knocked out by a choke hold, police said, hitting his face on a car mirror and the asphalt. He later refused county medical treatment.
Prosecutor Maurice Frazier told the jury that Yates was arrested because police were outnumbered and looking for ways to remove the most obvious agitators and get the crowd to leave the scene.
"The police drew their attention to the worst of the worst that night," Frazier said, noting that only one other person was arrested after he punched someone in front of an officer and then pulled a knife.
Yates claimed on the witness stand Wednesday that he was doing exactly what police told him to do, and denied making a scene or beating on cars. Gibbons came up behind him, he said, and told him he was under arrest. He immediately complied, but once in handcuffs, he said, he was slammed into a car and onto the ground for no reason he could discern. He suffered facial cuts and bruises, and a chipped tooth.
"I started walking towards my car when I was beaten and arrested," Yates said at one point. He filed a civil suit against the police "to send a message. I'm 24 years old and my tooth is gone and I have a scar on my face I have to live with forever," he said. The county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is supporting him.
Defense attorney John O. Iweanoge repeatedly pointed to important details in police testimony that were not in the original police incident reports, suggesting they may have been concocted later as part of a police cover-up.
"Is it illegal to be upset?" he asked the jury. "They were pounding his face on the ground. That's reasonable doubt all over the place."
"At the end of the day, it is an issue of credibility," co-prosecutor Danielle Duclaux told the jury.
Meanwhile, the prospects for Yates' civil suit against the police is unclear. The original $50 million federal civil suit was dismissed Aug. 17 after Anitha Johnson, his Hyattsville attorney, failed to respond to a county motion to throw the case out. Johnson also did not appeal the dismissal, but she refiled a nearly identical suit Sept. 29. Howard County lawyers moved Tuesday to have that dismissed, arguing that once a case is thrown out without appeal, it can't be re-filed.