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City College student ‘Fly Benzo’ put on trial after heated confrontation with SFPD

March 7, 2012

Update by Fly’s attorney, Severa Keith, follows with instructions on how you can help

by Alexander Schmaus, The Guardsman

Feb. 24 – Bayview Hunters Point political activist and City College student DeBray “Fly Benzo” Carpenter was put on trial for allegedly obstructing and assaulting a police officer and resisting arrest.

This video frame shows SFPD’s brutal assault on Fly Benzo last Oct. 18, yet he was convicted of assaulting the police. – Video frame: TryntaGetIt
The court case stems from an incident on Oct. 18, 2011, when two San Francisco police officers and a group of Bayview Hunters Point residents had a heated confrontation in Mendell Plaza. The incident began when officers Joshua Fry and John Norment arrived at the plaza, and Fry pulled the plug on a community boombox.

Officer Fry testified that music was playing so loudly that he could not hear the sound of his own radio or earphones. “I could have walked 20 feet away to hear, but I didn’t because that is historically a high-crime area,” said Fry. “It’s our job to be there so people feel safe.”

When asked if there was a noise ordinance that applied, Fry said, “No, it’s not applicable, because nobody complained.”

Mendell Plaza, located at Third Street and Palou Avenue, is an important public gathering place in the heart of Bayview Hunters Point. “People have been plugging in that boombox right there for years,” said Benzo’s lawyer, Severa Keith. “That corner is used for everything.”

After the music was silenced, angry neighborhood residents were heard yelling, “You wouldn’t bother white people like this!”

Fry and Norment began filming the crowd with their cell phones and, in response, Benzo recorded them as well.

“They were harassing me,” said Benzo, “and Officer Fry took out his iPhone and started recording me first.” Benzo recorded Fry trying to smack the phone out of his hand.

A second video, shot by bystander Gerald Robinson, records Benzo’s arrest and can be seen on YouTube. Robinson’s video shows Norment shake his pepper spay can in front of the angry crowd.

In court, Norment acknowledged that shaking the pepper spray “may have been” perceived as antagonistic. Fry and Norment both testified that they were concerned about their own safety.

“I was afraid he was going to hit me,” said Fry, referring to Benzo. “I thought we were going to be attacked,” said Norment.

However, Benzo appears non-violent throughout the video, while Fry is shown smacking Benzo’s arm.

Benzo continued to film. Then Fry grabbed and twisted Benzo’s arm while other officers closed in and forced him to the ground.

Rodney Fitzgerald, one of the other officers involved, testified that the crowd was “yelling and screaming about police brutality.”

Norment fell and hit his head while apprehending Benzo and allegedly suffered a concussion.

He was treated at San Francisco General Hospital 10 days later for localized neck pain and a bruise on the back of his head and did not report to a doctor about suffering from headaches until nearly three weeks after the incident.

The doctor who treated him in October said it would be “unusual” for a person to feel concussion symptoms after so much time had passed.

“My theory is that the police started it,” said Keith. “An officer cannot disrespect a person and use their anger as grounds for arrest,” she said.

When asked if pulling the plug on a group’s boombox was disrespectful, Fry answered, “Depends on context and history.”

The police department’s “community policing” policy is key to Keith’s argument, and she asked both Fry and Norment whether they were familiar it. Both confirmed they were.

The policy directs officers to maintain respectful and courteous relations with community members, to practice open communication and to have knowledge, understanding and respect for the history and culture of the communities they serve.

The prosecuting attorney argued that police should be granted discretion to determine which situations require reasonable use of force.

Benzo is currently out on $95,000 bail and faces up to four years in prison.

This story first appeared in The Guardsman, the San Francisco City College student newspaper, where Alexander Schmaus is a staff writer. The Guardsman can be reached at http://theguardsman.com/contact-us/. DeBray “Fly Benzo” Carpenter is a straight-A student at City College.

Update

by Severa Keith, attorney for DeBray ‘Fly Benzo’ Carpenter

Fly Benzo became a police target following SFPD’s murder of Kenneth Harding, 19, on July 16, 2011, when Fly emerged as Bayview Hunters Point’s most outspoken protester. He was jailed a week after the murder, held for several days and then released without charges. This photo was taken Aug. 4, 2011, in Mendell Plaza, where the Oct. 18 confrontation occurred. Police shot Harding as he ran from them through the plaza. They let him bleed to death on the sidewalk across Oakdale from the plaza, training their guns on him and on the large crowd of distraught and angry residents rather than trying to save his life.
DeBray was charged in Count 1 with a felony, resisting arrest causing great bodily injury. The jury acquitted him of that, but he was convicted of misdemeanor resisting. Count 2 was a felony, obstructing officers with use of threats or violence. The jury hung on that count, but he was convicted of misdemeanor obstructing. He was convicted of Count 3, which was assault on an officer, a misdemeanor. An appeal of the convictions is planned.

While the outcome could have been much worse, we wanted better. DeBray was convicted by a jury that did not have the opportunity to hear the entire story. The judge refused to allow any evidence related to DeBray’s prior interactions with these officers, which included incidents of racist acts, threatening acts, taunting and evidence that their superiors had told them to video record Mr. Carpenter.

Evidence of DeBray’s history of community activism was also excluded. All this was excluded on the basis that it would tend to “confuse the issues” in the trial. Evidence was limited to the events of Oct. 18, 2011.

The exclusion of this important and relevant history between DeBray and the officers who arrested him was shocking to me and made an already uphill battle a mountain. It is clear from watching the video of DeBray’s arrest that the incident did not start on that day; there was a history there, and the jury did not hear it.

Rather than confuse the issues, the history of Officer Fry’s and Norment’s outrageous conduct actually illuminates and clarifies what happened on Oct. 18. Their bias, motives and personal animosity towards DeBray were not allowed in the trial.

The effect of the exclusion of this evidence, which was going to be presented by four willing and brave witnesses, who were willing to speak up about the officers’ conduct, even though they feared retribution, became clear during the trial. During DeBray’s testimony, several jurors asked the question of whether he had had past contacts with these officers. Their questions went unanswered.

After the trial concluded, when I spoke with the jurors, the summation of their thoughts about the case was basically that none of them condoned the officers’ conduct, but they though that DeBray’s protests, words and actions were “too much.” In my opinion, they didn’t understand fully why he confronted the officers like he did or that his protest that day was not just about a boombox being rudely unplugged.

The community support in this case was powerful, as are the words and thoughts that many people have shared about the case. We will all continue to fight for justice, and it is so important for the community to continue their support of DeBray now that he faces sentencing.

Support letters needed asking for probation, no jail time

Please send letters in support of DeBray getting a sentence of probation in this matter, rather than jail time. It is important to include how you know him and a bit about yourself, if you care to include some personal details – though this is not required.

Please write about his positive impacts in the community and all his good works. Write about his successes, plans and future. Specific stories and details about when you have seen him shine are very valuable. If you know him personally, talk about your commitment to him getting through his probation successfully. Most importantly, keep it positive and write it with love and your best intentions in mind. Your letters can be emailed, faxed or mailed to me at Law Offices of Severa Keith, 179 11th St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103, phone (415) 626-6000, fax (415) 865-0376.

 

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