Jury: No verdict yet in Deptford police trial

Posted: July 12, 2007

A Superior Court jury deliberated today almost two hours without reaching a verdict in the case of a Deptford Township police patrolman accused of beating a motorist after a traffic stop.

The jury in Gloucester County will resume deliberations tomorrow. Patrolman John Gillespie is on trial on charges of official misconduct and aggravated assault.

If convicted, the charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years for official misconduct and five years for aggravated assault.

Jurors told Superior Court Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson late today that they had several questions and wanted to rehear portions of testimony in the two-week-old trial. The judge said she would address the jury's questions tomorrow morning.

Senior Assistant Prosecutor Paul Colangelo told jurors in his closing argument today that Patrolman John Gillespie "showed himself to be a total liar" when he testified yesterday that he used appropriate force to subdue the motorist.

The prosecutor called Gillespie and motorist Joseph Rao, of South Philadelphia, "hotheads" who locked horns immediately after Rao, 19 at the time, was stopped for allegedly running a stop sign.

Gillespie's lawyer, Ron Helmer, told jurors today that Rao was the liar and has no respect for the law. He pointed out that Rao is on probation for a conviction for making terroristic threats against Philadelphia police officers.

"This is like Alice in Wonderland," he said. "The bad-guy criminal gets all his charges dismissed. The police officers are on trial for their lives and the bad guy is salivating and hoping the officer is found guilty so he can get closer to his million-dollar prize."

During his own testimony yesterday, Gillespie told jurors that he followed police procedures to subdue his handcuffed prisoner. Gillespie, a four-year veteran of the Deptford police force and former Gloucester County sheriff's deputy, said the South Philadelphia man he arrested was kicking inside his police car and threatened to smash the window and escape.

"It's my duty to go back there and subdue him," said Gillespie, 35, of Deptford. "I'd be responsible if he jumped out of the window and got hit by a car."

A video camera mounted on the dashboard of a second police cruiser, parked behind Gillespie's, recorded the brawny Gillespie and another police officer tussling with the screaming, handcuffed suspect in the backseat of Gillespie's cruiser.

The prosecution alleges that Gillespie and Patrolman Timothy Parks punched, kicked and choked Rao, of the 1500 block of South Broad Street, after Gillespie stopped Rao's car for allegedly running a stop sign. Parks is scheduled to go on trial later.

The centerpiece of the trial has been the police car video, which shows the officers climbing into the backseat with the handcuffed Rao, who explodes in wails of protest.

Rao testified last week that Gillespie repeatedly choked him and that Parks punched him, causing a concussion, cuts, bruises and neck pain. Doctors who treated him reported no visible neck injury.

"I absolutely never choked him," Gillespie said.

Gillespie said Rao kicked him in the groin and then kicked Parks in the head. Gillespie said that he and Parks never used excessive force but had to restrain the unruly suspect.

As soon as he approached Rao's stopped car, he said, he was afraid. He said Rao began swearing at him and made furtive movements as if he might be reaching for a weapon in the seat cushions.

Gillespie said he pulled the driver from the car according to his police training.

The officer admitted he was unprofessional in cursing and shouting at Rao, but said the force he used was warranted.

"He made me very nervous. I was in fear for my life. I was fearful I wasn't going to see my 5-year-old daughter and my pregnant wife again," said Gillespie, who was on the Deptford police force four years before he was suspended without pay after the incident.

Rao was charged with resisting arrest and traffic offenses, but prosecutors later dropped the charges. Rao, now 20, has filed a notice that he intends to sue the officers and Deptford Township police for more than $1 million, saying he suffered "severe physical, emotional, and psychological damage."

Later, after Gillespie brought Rao to the police station, the suspect called him a "pig," cursed him and threatened to kill his family, Gillespie testified.

"He threatened to find out where I lived and said he can because he's in the mob and he knows people, and I took that pretty serious," said Gillespie.

Gillespie denied that he abused Rao at the police station.

The prosecution alleges that Gillespie removed Rao's handcuffs, told a female officer to leave the two alone, and then challenged Rao to a fight. When Rao declined, Gillespie handcuffed him and choked him again, the prosecutor alleges.

Gillespie acknowledged that he asked Officer Sandra Reid to leave the room, but said it was to protect her from Rao's offensive language.

"I consider her to be like a little sister to me and it was absolutely offensive," he said.

Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or jhefler@phillynews.com.

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