WASHINGTON – A surveillance videotape was enough to convince a federal appeals court to throw out federal claims against five Prince George’s County police officers who were sued after a man they were arresting suffered a fatal heart attack.
Three eyewitnesses said they saw officers “manhandle” Clarence Stewart, 51, as he lay “defenseless on the ground (and) cried out for the police to stop (hitting him),” during a May 2000 arrest at the Target store in Upper Marlboro.
Police conceded that it took all five of them to subdue Stewart, who they repeatedly sprayed him with pepper spray and hit with their batons in a private office of the store after he resisted arrest. Stewart had a heart attack after he was handcuffed and was being led from the store, according to court documents.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that, despite what the eyewitnesses said, a store surveillance videotape only shows Stewart walking with officers and Target employees, who do not touch him, much less beat him.
“The video cameras at the store recorded enough of the scene to corroborate what the officers said happened and to refute thoroughly the version presented by the decedent’s estate,” the court said in its unpublished opinion.
The court said that Stewart’s widow, Elaine, who relied heavily on the eyewitness statements, failed to prove that her husband’s constitutional rights were violated.
Stewart’s attorney said he was disappointed in the ruling.
“There were some serious facts omitted from the case,” said Harry T. Spikes, the attorney. “If you read the opinion carefully, you would see that the court seemed to put more faith in the videotape than in the statements of eyewitnesses.”
The decision reverses U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr., who had rejected the officers’ request for dismissal and ordered the case to go to trial. “I think we can assume that when people go into Target that they won’t come out dead,” Williams said, according to the appeals court decision.
Spikes said he plans to press ahead with state law charges in the case, which includes allegations of wrongful death, loss of consortium, assault and battery and false arrest. Despite this week’s ruling, he said he hopes to win on the state-level charges, maintaining that the videotape does not show all parts of the store and should not be used to discount witnesses’ testimony.
The appeals court also said that two of the eyewitnesses’ affidavits were “nearly verbatim replicas of one another and . . . do not distinguish clearly between what the men saw when they reviewed the videotape and what they actually saw in person.”
Police officers named in the suit were Stephen A. Vitko, Darryl R. Pollock, Ryan D. Chambers, Michael S. Rose and Troy L. Wallace. County officials would not comment on the specifics of the lawsuit Wednesday, but said they were satisfied with the appellate court’s decision.
“We were pleased that the court agreed with our appeal,” said Jim Keary, communications director for Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson.