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A jury on Friday found a former La Mesa police officer not guilty of lying on a police report that stemmed from a controversial arrest of a Black man near a trolley station last year.
The verdict acquitting Matthew Dages, 30, was read shortly before noon in a packed courtroom in El Cajon. The jury deliberated about a day and a half.
“I think our client is relieved,” Dages’ attorney Joshua Visco said. “Its been a very, very long journey for him, and his family and his supporters — of which he has a lot.”
Visco said the key in the case was “showing the jury the truth, showing them the actual facts, not getting distracted by the politics, talking about issues of race, talking about social unrest in the world.”
Several of Dages’ supporters were in the courtroom for the verdict, and on hearing the words “not guilty,” many of them exhaled. Afterward, Dages hugged and talked with people outside the courtroom, but he declined to make a statement to the media.
Dages had faced a single felony count of lying on a police report stemming from the May 27, 2020, arrest of Amaurie Johnson, which was captured on video from bystanders and police body-worn cameras.
Johnson’s arrest drew immediate scrutiny after video posted to social media showed Dages grabbing and pushing him onto a concrete bench.
Johnson did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the verdict.
Critics decried the 2020 encounter as a case of police bias and racial injustice, arguing that Dages, who is white, had no basis to detain Johnson but had profiled him.
The NAACP’s San Diego branch issued a statement that it was “disappointed” by the verdict.
“The Branch believes there was more than enough evidence to convict this former police officer. The justice system failed in this case,” said the statement, signed by First Vice President Brian Bonner.
Yusef Miller of the Racial Justice Coalition, who was in court for the verdict, said people of color are often targeted and profiled.
“It’s obvious that this man [Johnson] — innocent of any crime, any violation — was targeted, and that’s what started this thing snowballing out of control,” Miller said.
The La Mesa encounter happened two days after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, as the nation was swept by a swell of protests against racial injustice.
Five days after Floyd’s killing, and three days after Johnson’s arrest, protesters gathered in La Mesa in response to both incidents. What began as a peaceful, though at times tense, protest later ended with three buildings burned and several businesses burglarized.
La Mesa police declined to pursue a case against Johnson, who was arrested on suspicion of assaulting a police officer and resisting, delaying or obstructing a police officer.
The department fired Dages. He is fighting to get his job back.
Visco said the case was one of “political prosecution.”
“The not-guilty verdict shows that the district attorney should have never prosecuted this case in the first place,” he said.
Another of Dages’ attorneys, Jeremiah Sullivan, told reporters: “I said on day one of the trial, if you remove the progressive lens from this case, you would see that Dages is innocent. And that is precisely what happened.”
San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan said in a statement that she respects the verdict and remains “proud that my team courageously fought for justice without prejudice against or favor towards anyone.
“The integrity of our criminal justice system depends on police officers filing truthful police reports and our thorough review of the facts and evidence led us to bring the charge and present the case to the jury,” Stephan said.
At trial, Deputy Dist. Atty. Fiona Dunleavy argued that because Dages did not have a lawful reason to detain Johnson, he falsely stated in the report that he observed Johnson smoking and that Johnson failed to pay for a trolley fare.
Visco told the jury the report was an honest account based on Dages’ perspective.
Both Dages and Johnson testified during the trial.
Dages said he encountered Johnson outside an apartment complex near the Grossmont Transit Center, during a trolley fare enforcement operation. Dages had been with the La Mesa Police Department for about two years.
The former officer told the jury he observed Johnson from a distance and believed the man was smoking in an area where that was prohibited. When Dages walked up to Johnson, he told him he wasn’t allowed to smoke in the area. Johnson told Dages he was not smoking.
Dages then asked Johnson if he lived in the apartment complex. Johnson said yes, but upon further questioning, he said he was waiting for friends, Dages said.
Dages then asked Johnson if he had paid a trolley fare. Dages contended Johnson was standing in an area where he was required to pay a fare — an assertion the prosecution countered.
Johnson, 23 years old at the time of the encounter, testified that he insisted he was waiting for friends.
Within seconds, Johnson’s friends drove up and he tried to walk away from the officer. That’s when Dages first grabbed Johnson. Dages said he decided to detain Johnson for not paying a fare.
Dages said Johnson smacked his arm.
Johnson said he swiped the officer’s hand. Video does not clearly capture the moment.
Dages claimed Johnson balled his fists and took a fighting stance, with one foot in front of the other at an angle — a claim Johnson disputed. The prosecution and defense disagreed over what the video shows.
On cross-examination, Dages said he realized Johnson had a cellphone in hand and was not smoking. Johnson had only keys and his phone on him. Dages acknowledged he did not include that information in his police report.
During closing arguments, Visco said department officials scrutinized the report, which, according to testimony, Dages revised at their request before it was approved. Visco suggested the report turned into an issue after “the city burned.”
“Now it’s a lie? That’s garbage,” he told jurors.
Dunleavy said department leaders zeroed in on why Dages used force — the matter under scrutiny in the wake of the viral video. They took his word when Dages wrote that Johnson was smoking and had not paid for a fare as Dages said was required.
“They believed their officer,” Dunleavy said.
In March, he filed a request in San Diego County Superior Court, asking a judge to review decisions by the city and an appeals board regarding his termination.
Perri Storey, a spokesperson for the city of La Mesa, said Friday that the acquittal “does not overturn his employment dismissal.”
That case remains in progress.
This content was originally published here.