Cop Denies Guilt After Running Over and Killing 19-Yr-Old Boy
HOUSTON (CN) – A Houston policeman on trial for running over a theft suspect fleeing in an all-terrain vehicle acknowledged Monday he should have kept his distance, but denied responsibility for the man’s death.
Houston police Officer Jordan Greenhaw chased Jason Trevino and Trevino’s ATV passenger Bernard Seetaram at speeds approaching 40 mph onto a dirt road, a power line easement, around 3 a.m. on July 27, 2011 in northeast Houston.
Trevino and Seetaram matched the description of two suspects in the area who were accused of stealing a fishing boat and its trailer, Greenhaw testified Monday.
Greenhaw said the chase ended when Trevino tipped the ATV and it rolled under his cruiser. After arresting Seetaram at gunpoint, Greenhaw asked him: “Did your buddy get away?” Greenhaw then walked over to his cruiser and saw Trevino’s legs sticking out from under its front bumper.
Greenhaw told the seven-person jury he could hear Trevino moaning: “Get this thing off me. It hurts. Get this off me. I can’t breathe.”
Greenhaw jumped behind the wheel and tried to back the car off Trevino, but the wreck had disabled its engine. A tow truck driver lifted the car off Trevino, who was taken by ambulance to an emergency room, where he died from a heart attack during surgery to repair his shattered sternum, coupled with complications from a damaged lung. He was 19.
Trevino’s parents Lloyd Trevino and Catherine Cortez sued Greenhaw for alleged civil rights violations – excessive force and unreasonable seizure – in January 2013.
The case was removed from Harris County Court to Federal Court. They also sued Houston and its police department for municipal liability, claiming the department failed to train Greenhaw on how and when to pursue suspects.
Civil rights lawsuits against police officers rarely go to trial in Federal Court because the powerful doctrine of qualified immunity, meant to protect officers from liability for making split-second decisions in the line of duty, is typically enough to obtain a dismissal.
Greenhaw raised that defense, but U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore denied it. She also denied the city’s motion for summary judgment in an order she filed under seal in December 2015. Gilmore sealed the order because it referred to confidential police reports, according to her law clerk Atticus Lee.
Greenhaw, square-jawed and balding, was the first witness Monday morning, the trial’s second day. He wore a dark suit, gray shirt and tie and a frown, his distaste for the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ questions evident in his body language.
The case boils down to which version of the story the jury will believe.
Greenhaw maintains that Trevino swerved left, overcorrected and tipped his ATV into the path of his cruiser.
Seetaram testified that Greenhaw bumped the back of the ATV twice and caused the wreck.
Greenhaw does not deny he should have handled the chase differently.
“Hindsight is 20/20 and I could have done a lot of things better,” he said. “I could have avoided striking the ATV. I could have stayed farther back, let them crash, then went and arrested them.”
He testified that the Houston Police Department had a policy at the time that forbade officers from ramming vehicles.
Greenhaw told the city’s attorney Henry Carnaby that as he pursued Trevino he tried to stay “at a reasonable distance” behind and to the right of the ATV.
He said the HPD trains its officers to keep their cruisers to the right of fleeing suspects so if the suspect opens fire the column between the front windshield and driver’s side window will protect them. They are also taught to stay a good distance back so they don’t run over suspects, Greenhaw said.
The city called Houston police Officer Steven Martinez to the stand. Martinez investigated the crash but said he was unable to determine how fast the vehicles were going or how they collided.
Martinez told the plaintiffs’ attorneys that part of his former job as an investigator was to try to figure out who was at fault in car accidents.
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He said that in police pursuits the fault calculus usually weighs against anyone who runs from the police.
“If he hadn’t fled, would anything have happened? Probably not, because the officer wouldn’t have left the paved road,” he said.
The plaintiffs’ attorney Randall Kallinen tried to undermine Martinez with a hypothetical situation: “If an 8-year-old steals a pack of gum from a convenience store, then evades arrest by driving off on his minicart and a police officer chases him, runs him over and kills him, then that would be the 8-year-old’s fault?
The unflappable Martinez replied: “Possibly. You’d have to look at the facts of the case.”
The trial became emotional when Lloyd Trevino took the witness stand and his attorney Grace Weatherly urged him to tell the jury about his son.
Lloyd Trevino is a large man who suffers from numerous health problems that confine him to a wheelchair. He wheeled his chair in front of the witness stand with the help of a courthouse security guard, his face red with exertion, and Gilmore’s case manager handed him a microphone.
Trevino’s face contorted and he tipped his head back to fight off tears as he described his son as “very dynamic, highly intelligent, almost gifted.”
Weatherly tried to soothe him: “I’m not asking these difficult questions to upset you. I’m just trying to give the jurors a sense of what you lost.”
Trevino said Jason learned to ride a motorcycle when he was 3 and had a “natural talent for racing” that he honed by racing open-wheel go-karts, never finishing worse than second in six races, with the dream of becoming a NASCAR driver and the goal of becoming a professional mechanic.
Trevino said he had a shop at the house he shared with Jason, where they repaired ATVs, cars and bicycles.
“I was always the go-to person and he was the hands,” Trevino said.
He described his home as a magnet for the neighborhood kids.
“We have motor sports. We fix four-wheelers. I fixed bikes for a lot of kids. I always invited kids to come over and ride four-wheelers, to do something positive and not be out on the streets,” Lloyd said, facing Jason’s mother Catherine Cortez, who at sat the plaintiffs’ table, pulling tissues from a box, sobs wracking her petite frame.
Seetaram said he and Jason were neighbors who bonded over their love of barbecuing, shooting pool and playing basketball at the Trevino home.
Seetaram said Jason showed his preternatural mechanical skills one night when Seetaram skidded on ice and wrecked his mother’s car. “He took everything apart in the dark and replaced it with parts from another car,” Seetaram said. “He knew every screw. He was good like that.”
“Why were you working on it in the dark?” Weatherly asked.
“Because I wanted it to be done before my mom got home from work,” Seetaram deadpanned.
Seetaram and Lloyd Trevino testified that after Jason’s funeral and cremation, 50 to 100 four-wheeler riders went out to the scene of the wreck and held a vigil. “We just took in the moment,” Trevino said. “Everybody’s special, but he was a character. He brought sunshine where sun didn’t shine.”
The trial is expected to conclude this week.
Published by Courthouse News Service.