But Sheehan, who was off duty at the time of the incident, was not guilty of breaking a law, the judge said. He was merely "protesting a protest," Bernardin said, and was exercising his freedom of speech.
Sheehan was accused of approaching relatives of Michael Lamount Simmons and shouting a racial slur during a peaceful protest outside the Hall of Justice in Camden. Sheehan was charged with harassment, a disorderly persons offense. Simmons, 28, was shot to death in January when he sped off after a traffic stop.
Simmons' family, who organized the protest, filed a complaint against Sheehan two days later. They said he was driving near the courthouse when he encountered the group, many of whom were carrying placards and shouting slogans such as "No justice, no peace!"
The witnesses testified that Sheehan stopped his truck, shouted a racial slur and told the group to "get a life." A shouting match ensued, and Camden police intervened, according to witnesses.
Sheehan, who took the stand last week, denied using the racial epithet. He said he was off duty when he drove his stepson to the courthouse to pick up baseball equipment from his mother, who works there. He testified that he did not know what the protest was about, but felt personally attacked when he saw signs with anti-state police messages, such as "Protect and Kill."
Sheehan admitted he pulled his truck near the curb and shouted to the group to "get a life." He denied using the racial epithet, and Bernardin said there was reasonable doubt on that point.
Sheehan declined to comment as he left the courtroom.
Joseph M. Marrone, attorney for Simmons' family in a separate, civil case, said that although Sheehan got "a tongue lashing" from the judge, the family did not feel justice had been served.
"At this point, the family has lost a life," he said. "And then they had to deal with this extraneous publicity of the trooper."
Simmons was shot Jan. 29 after Trooper Daniel Ellington, a 16-year veteran of the force, and another trooper stopped Simmons' car on a snowy Camden street. The troopers ordered Simmons to get out, but he sped off, authorities said. Ellington grabbed the roof rack of the car and opened fire. Afterward, a "substantial amount" of cocaine was found in Simmons' car, police said.
In October, a state grand jury declined to bring charges against Ellington. Simmons' family has filed a civil suit in the matter.
Contact suburban staff writer
Nora Koch at 856-779-3869