By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
STOCKTON – The civil rights trial against the city of Stockton and two of its sergeants – including one with a history of shooting and killing suspects – is grinding to a close after nearly two weeks here, as key witnesses, the defendants and plaintiff all wrapped up testimony in front of a San Joaquin County Superior Court jury.
Joseph Green, a 16-year-old Black teen in 2011 when he said Stockton PD officer Robert Johnson falsely arrested him, beat him and knocked his front teeth out, filed a lawsuit against Johnson and Stockton officer Robert Wong. It took years to get to trial after delays caused by the Stockton bankruptcy.
The case may go to the jury Friday, or at the latest next Tuesday, according to attorneys in the case.
Early Thursday – just before a fire alarm cleared parts of the courthouse – Judge Barbara Kronlund released Wong from the assault charges, but other claims remain, including false arrest, negligence and violating the federal civil rights of Green.
Johnson – who has been involved in two shootings over the past decade, including one in which he shot and killed a suspect – also faces assault and battery claims. Johnson was also disciplined in the Green case for violating police procedures, but it was overturned in arbitration. The jury wasn’t allowed to hear about that.
In rejecting the arguments of Wong’s attorney, Ronald Scholar, that all claims should be dismissed against his client, the judge noted that it would be “realistic that a jury might think he (Wong) is intentionally keeping himself ignorant. In critical moments Wong has had his back to them. It seems a jury could say he’s keeping a blind eye,” adding that a jury could consider Wong guilty for a failure to intervene when his partner, Johnson, was assaulting Green.
Scholar, an active barrister who has been earnest in trying to disrupt the flow of Green’s attorney, Tony Piccuta, argued, “Wong doesn’t know what’s going on. All he hears is ‘F*** you and your badge.’ No reasonable jury could really assume he was guilty.”
“He didn’t have a realistic opportunity to (intervene),” explaining that by the time Wong got to the scene with Johnson and Green on the ground, it would have been “reckless” to intervene because he didn’t know if Green had a knife or gun.
Wong, to be sure, appeared to know little of what happened in the February 2011 skirmish at the “California Stop” convenience store and gas station. His “I don’t recall” and “I don’t remember and “I don’t know” responses to lawyer’s queries were almost uncountable.
Wong didn’t know the age of Green, could not attest to what happened, didn’t recall seeing him squirming. But he said on the stand that trespass wasn’t a serious crime, and that he did see Johnson’s arm go up in a “striking” motion over Green several times, but didn’t put the assault in his report.
Piccuta said Wong didn’t mention the beating because “Johnson asked you not to…and you don’t want to incriminate Officer Johnson, you don’t want to say he jumped on Green and hit him in the face.”
Wong did remember Green asking Johnson to stop hitting him, saying, “Stop, my teeth are knocked out.” In fact, Wong delivered Green’s knocked out teeth to Green when he was in the hospital from the beating. He also delivered a citation for resisting arrest and trespass – both charges were never prosecuted.
Wong said he did remember officers at the station telling Green he might be able to have his teeth implanted if he put them in milk, but didn’t remember officers reportedly laughing about that, as noted by Piccuta.
And Wong noted that it was a “high crime, gang area,” and implied that he was worried about “people” in the store and that, even if he wanted to intervene, he didn’t want to have his “back” to the front of the store.
Piccuta, though, asked if Wong knew the gangs in the area. Wong said yes, and admitted Green was not a gang member.
Johnson, who began testifying Wednesday, wrapped up Thursday morning.
He repeated that he wasn’t loud or mad when he showed his badge “when he told Green he was Stockton PD.
“I just wanted to get a water and go. He (clerk) looked at me so I saw it as a sign he wanted help, so I told Mr. Green to leave. He turned profanity toward me. That conversation continued and I felt I had to step in and make an arrest to solve the problem. He’s interfering with the actions of the store and not leaving,” asserted Johnson.
Interestingly, the defense failed, as it had promised, to call the store clerk to confirm if he indeed had asked Green to leave, or had, as Green claimed, only told him to get a different dollar bill, one that wasn’t damaged.
Regarding his treatment of the young, lightweight teen – about half the weight of Johnson – the officer said he didn’t smash Green’s face into the floor, knocking out the teeth. He said he gently lifted Green.
He referred to the punches to Green’s face while he was on the ground as “distraction” blows, meant to keep Green from spitting on him.
Piccuta asked a series of questions toward the end of his Thursday cross that frustrated the defense team. The last question drew a stern warning from the judge.
“You’re a peace officer, you uphold the peace…when you saw (Mr. Green) trying to buy candy (for his four-year-old sister), did you ever consider offering him one of your dollars?” asked Piccuta. It was never answered because the judge intervened.
The testimony of Green was in stark contrast to Johnson.
The defense repeatedly attempted to get Green to admit he was “cussing” during the conversation with the clerk, and that he was out of control. Green disputed all of it.
He also was adamant the clerk never asked him to leave; the defense played the video that showed the clerk gesturing, but Green said he was only refusing to accept the burned dollar bill. He also said Johnson never said he was under arrest, that he just grabbed him as he and his little sister were leaving the store.
Hector Gonzalez, the one eyewitness who was called, was extremely emotional in his testimony and had to take time on many occasions to get his emotions under control. He supports Green’s version of events. In his deposition, Gonzalez said he heard Johnson say to Green, “Go get another dollar and pay for your chicken before it gets cold.”
Green was only buying “gummy bears.”
Green, now a 25-year-old assistant operator at a box printing company, explained that it had been a rough 24 hours, noting that the night before the incident “the majority of our house had burned down; we were at my grandma’s house trying to figure out what to do next. Red Cross gave us money for a motel.”
He said Johnson interrupted his conversation with the clerk over the disputed bill, and that the clerk, whom he knew, didn’t ask him to leave as Johnson maintains.
“Johnson grabs his hood and throws me to the ground in the store. He punched me twice,” he said, and explained that after he was pushed to the ground and Johnson was on top of him, he couldn’t get his arm from under him because “he’s on my chest.” Johnson said he had to be rough on Green because he could not see Green’s hand.
In horrific detail, Green – who said he didn’t know Johnson was a police officer until he was handcuffed – said he saw “a pool of blood and my teeth. I’m screaming and hollering for someone to get my mom….he’s sitting on top of me, all his body weight on my back so I can’t breathe, face down in my blood, him rocking on top of me. My little sister is screaming, and I’m telling her I’m OK. Johnson just told me to shut up or I’ll punch you again.”
Green said, “I never spit blood at officer Johnson,” and that “he sat on me a few minutes, but it seemed like I was deprived of air for like an eternity…in the patrol car, officers surrounding me, and laughing and joking telling me I should not have mouthed off. Paramedics, like the cops, were laughing.”
Green added that when he was finally taken to the hospital, after a stop at the police station, he was largely ignored, “handcuffed to a chair at the back of the hospital until an African doctor came by and asked me what I was doing. He looked at my lip and stitched it. I cried myself to sleep.”
Green admitted that he began wetting the bed – he did his best to hide it from his mother – and had dreams of “Officer Johnson chasing me around Delta College over and over. I just had this sense of urgency.”
He said he did get depressed, and missing teeth made him not want to go on dates.
“I liked my teeth and my smile. I think about this every day,” Green confided.
His mother, Sheronica Champion, said she was in shock when a stranger told her that her son was being arrested. She dropped the hose that she was pumping gas from, and ran inside where Green yelled at her, “Mom, he just knocked my teeth out.”
Champion said, “Johnson told me to get the F*** out and gestured to his side like he was going to pull his gun out….it was an ugly, disgusting situation.”
On cross by defense lawyer Scholar, Champion admitted her son had a hard time in school before the incident, but she said she was “proud” of him because after the incident his grades improved so much that he graduated from high school three months early.