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The Ugly Truths Revealed in Thabo Sefolosha's Trial

The NYPD's story about Thabo Sefolosha, who was cleared of all charges on Friday, has given way to an uglier truth—of anger, of power with impunity, and of racial violence.
October 10, 2015, 6:25pm
LAURENT GILLIERON/EPA

If the strange and terrible saga of NBA guard-forward Thabo Sefolosha's battle against the New York Police Department is not quite entirely over yet, we are, as of Friday, marking garbage time. The verdict in the trial this week of the Swiss-born Sefolosha, who was charged of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and "obstructing governmental administration," was the equivalent of a backboard-shattering dunk on the prosecution's case: the jury deigned to deliberate a full forty-five minutes before clearing the defendant on all charges. As Bill Bratton picks the glass from his hair, he would do well to consider long and hard the specter conjured in this trial: a confident black athlete, his leg broken by a raging police force, has coolly humiliated the NYPD on his way to a likely civil action.

Read More: The NYPD's Version of Sefolosha's Arrest Makes No Sense

As in so many cases of accused police brutality, the official account first given by the NYPD was enough to cover their asses, but lacked any real ring of truth; it simply didn't comport with reality. First undermined by video evidence, then dismantled by Sefolosha's jury trial, the NYPD's story has given way to an uglier truth—of anger, of power with impunity, and of racial violence.

The NYPD's Story

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The violent arrests of Sefolosha and his Atlanta Hawks teammate Pero Antić last April, in the wake of the late-night stabbing of Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland outside a Manhattan nightclub, were bizarre from the outset. As I wrote at the time, the NYPD's version of Sefolosha's arrest makes no sense. To read Officer JohnPaul Giacona recount the night, in the bloodless prose of the official police report, the 10th Precinct's hard-pressed and courteous professionals were unable to clear an active crime scene of two aggressive, lunging head cases:

I told [Sefolosha and Antić] approximately six times to disperse and clear the area. I observed the defendant and the separately charged defendant move a couple feet away but refuse to clear the area. The defendant and the separately charged defendant actions interfered with my ability and lawful duty to clear the area…I am informed by Police Office Caster, Shield #17276, of the Tenth Precinct that he observed the defendant Thabo Sefolosha run in an aggressive manner towards the direction of Police Officer Daniel Dongvort, Shield #3129, of the Tenth Precinct…I observed the defendant flail his arms, twist his body, kick his legs, and struggle against me making it difficult for me to place handcuffs on him and complete the arrest. It took four officers to place the defendant in handcuffs.

Benched by police brutality during the playoffs. Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After ignoring a half-dozen requests to leave the scene of a stabbing—a figure Giacona would later admit, under cross-examination, was a "guesstimate"—Sefolosha supposedly charged at Officer Dongvort and, upon being restrained, furiously resisted arrest. As Officer Michael O'Sullivan "was assisting in the arrest of the separately charged defendant Thabo Sefolosha, [Pero Antić] grabbed his left shoulder, making it difficult to assist in the arrest," leading to Antić's arrest as well. An open-and-shut case; what more is there to be said?

Within days, video footage showing Sefolosha's violent assault at the hands of a half dozen cops, at least a hundred feet away from the scene of Copeland's stabbing, eroded the NYPD narrative. Perhaps, alternatively, the police report was written in the tortured, ass-backwards locution of a cop who had felt disrespected, lashed out, and figured out the charges later.

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The Defense's Story

While Antić's charges were ultimately dropped, Sefolosha's were not. The Manhattan prosecutors offered him an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal of the charges, which would have required no admission of guilt, and carried only a day of community service, but Sefolosha opted for a jury trial. His confidence in the face such a light plea bargain gave some indication of how disastrous the city's case would become—and just how unique his defense would be. In a justice system where "ninety-four percent of state convictions are the result of guilty pleas," in which police perjury is endemic, and in which black men are incarcerated at six times the rate as white men, Sefolosha's destruction of the case against him in a jury trial is a remarkable achievement.

The smile of a winner. Photo by Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of the trial, which saw both Sefolosha and Antić testify, along with most of the arresting police officers, the jury had heard a much different story than that contained in the police report. Officer Giacona's "lawful duty to clear the area" extended to, according to witness Cherrise Porter, yelling "get the fuck off my street" at departing clubgoers, leading to a verbal confrontation with Sefolosha who, though moving down West 17th Street, was evidently not moving fast enough. Sefolosha, confronted by Giacona, was evidently amused by the vulgar 5'7" rookie cop, responding with a savage series of put-downs: "You're five-foot-two.' I said, 'If you saw me in a different place, you wouldn't say that. You're a midget.'"

Walking away from the scene and towards a waiting livery cab, Sefolosha passed defense witness Amos Canty, a homeless man being ushered away from the intersection by Officer Dongvort. It would be Sefolosha's approach to Canty and Dongvert, to give Canty a twenty-dollar bill, which would lead to the moment of confrontation.

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"The defendant does not think he needs to obey the law," said prosecutor Jesse Matthews in his opening statement, adding that Sefolosha "does not like being told what to do." Yet who was more out of control that night?

Was it Sefolosha, sober, fresh off a victory in Atlanta, and on his way to sleep it off when he was physically attacked while attempting to give a homeless man some money? Was it Officer Richard Caster, whose first instinct was apparently to interpret that act of kindness as Sefolosha "aggressively" rushing Officer Dongvort and jump to action—a response even Caster eventually conceded may have been mistaken? Was it Officer O'Sullivan, arresting Pero Antić for trying to stop the confrontation? Was it Officer Jordan Rossi, seen cracking a baton in the video footage?

Or was it Officer Giacona, already furious and shouting, now resentful at having been disrespected by a wealthy, black VIP in a hoody? It was the humiliated Giacona who, according to Sefolosha, had shouted in response at the departing NBA star that "with or without a badge, I'm going to fuck you up and I can fuck you up," and who then, according to the officer's own testimony, "came in from behind, leg-swept [Sefolosha] and placed him in handcuffs," possibly breaking the basketball player's leg. It was Giacona who, in defense counsel Alex Spiro's words, saw Sefolosha only as another "black man in a hoodie," in a city full of such young men, for whom such harassment and brutality is a fact of life.

Disrespecting a police officer because the police officer is being an asshole is not a crime, but it may as well be; one of Sefolosha's charges, "Obstruction of Governmental Administration," is a catchall for just such a situation. But if the officers who arrested and attacked Thabo Sefolosha thought it was standard operating procedure, they were mistaken that night—and may face worse yet, pending a civil lawsuit and an NYPD internal investigation.

Trapped in a situation that would be a pit of despair for so many young people of color, Thabo Sefolosha not only cleared his name, but exacted a reckoning against the police. Unfortunately, this is a unique story.