A viral video that showed people kicking a Baltimore Police officer and interfering as he made an arrest in January drew swift condemnation from the city’s top officials and Maryland’s governor. But attorneys for two men charged with assaulting the officer say newly obtained video puts the case in a drastically different light.
Police said at the time that Zayne Abdullah spat in the face of Sgt. Welton Simpson, causing an altercation. Body camera footage, however, does not appear to show Abdullah spitting at the officer when the officer shoves him and says, “Get out of my face!”
The attorneys also obtained additional citizen video from moments later as the two are struggling on the ground, and it shows Abdullah repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe” as Simpson increases his position over his face. That’s when a second man, Donnell Burgess, starts pulling at Abdullah’s arm in an attempt to free him. The earlier viral clip was taken from a different angle of the altercation.
“You choking him! You killing him! What the [expletive] are you doing!” a man’s voice can be heard yelling on the new footage.
Attorney Hunter Pruette alluded to the George Floyd video, in which bystanders are filming as Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin leans on Floyd’s neck as Floyd says he can’t breathe. Pruette said some questioned why the bystanders didn’t get involved in that incident.
Burgess “does something, and he’s made to be the villain, made to be the criminal,” Pruette said. “Now he’s facing felony criminal charges. ... It’s just not right.”
Pruette and attorney Natalie Finegar, who represents Abdullah, said Simpson escalated the situation when he bumped into Abdullah and jawed with him and others. Simpson can be heard saying, “Go ahead, I’ve got enough for everybody.”
“We all know what he means. He’s trying to provoke them,” Pruette said.
Police said they had turned the new video over to their Public Integrity Bureau, which investigates officer misconduct, for further review and declined additional comment. Prosecutors, who have charges pending against the two men, also declined to comment.
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents Baltimore police officers, could not be reached for comment.
The viral clip that showed Simpson being kicked by others was denounced by officials when it first surfaced. Commissioner Michael Harrison said he was “outraged,” and Mayor Jack Young said the video showed an “assault on a police officer. That is not going to be tolerated.”
Gov. Larry Hogan called it a “disgusting incident” that was “yet another example of the violence that has become far too common in Baltimore City.“
Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said at the time that she was “disgusted by the blatant assault against the police officer in the video, and my office will work with BPD to bring the perpetrators to justice. Violence has no place, against anyone. Period.”
The account from charging documents was written by an officer other than Simpson, and appeared to be based on comments made by Simpson.
But the initial encounter was captured on body worn camera, which shows Simpson making his way into a business in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Ave. when he bumps into Abdullah.
“Move out the [expletive] way,” Simpson can be heard saying.
“I’m walking out the store. [Expletive] you talking about?” Abdullah responds. “Bump me? Next time I’m going to hit your [expletive] in your mouth.”
Two other men are standing with Abdullah as he continues to express his displeasure with the officer.
Simpson pushes Abdullah and says, “Get out of my face!”
Abdullah then pushes Simpson in the area of his body camera, which Pruette says appears to have been turned off, and it is not turned back on.
Abdullah is speaking to Simpson and never appears to spit at him.
“They are close to each other talking. ... You don’t see him put his hands on Sgt. Simpson until Sgt. Simpson pushes him away and says get out of my face,” Pruette said. “At that point, Mr. Abdullah has every right under the law to defend himself. Someone pushes you, you have a right to push them back and defend yourself.”
The second clip, filmed by a bystander and obtained recently by the attorneys, shows Abdullah on the ground saying he can’t breathe. Simpson’s arm is on his neck, though he appears able to hold his neck up. People around them are yelling, “Let him go!”
Simpson then increases his position over Abdullah, wrapping his arm around his neck, with his shoulder over his mouth. It is difficult to see what happens next, but Abdullah is pulled out from underneath Simpson.
The original viral clip, which lasted about 17 seconds, showed a woman yelling, “Beat him,” as people kicked at the officer and others laughed.
A third clip shown by the defense attorneys shows Simpson explaining what happened to an officer who arrived later.
“Trying to clear them out, he wouldn’t move, he’s blocking the doorway, so I pushed past him ... He spit in my face and pushed me. Then I pushed him back. And the fight was on,” Simpson says.
“You pushed me!” Abdullah interjects.
Finegar questioned how the cases were indicted given the apparent contradictions betweem the body worn camera video and the statement of probable cause.
“The reality is the officer is the individual who assaulted my client,” Finegar said. “The State’s Attorney’s Office now appears to be supporting this, even though the body camera footage shows a completely different narrative, they went ahead and indicted the case regardless.”
State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Zy Richardson said in a statement that the office can’t comment on open cases.
“We cannot legally or ethically comment on open and pending cases or investigations still under review, as is the case at hand,” the statement said.
Abdullah was released from jail six weeks ago on home detention, which Finegar said costs him $400 a month. He lost his job at H&S Bakery. Pruette said Burgess was being held without bond but was released solely because of the pandemic concerns, and is also on home detention.