Jury acquits Deptford officer

He was accused of beating a S. Phila. man during a 2006 car stop.

Posted: July 14, 2007

A Deptford Township police officer was acquitted yesterday of charges he beat a motorist after a traffic stop.

Patrolman John Gillespie, 35, broke down in tears when the Superior Court jury in Gloucester County announced the verdict to a packed courtroom.

He was found not guilty of official misconduct, aggravated assault and simple assault, which could have landed him in prison for up to 15 years.

His hands shook as he kissed a Bible and pictures of his two young children. He hugged his attorney.

"Thank you, Jesus," Gillespie said. "When God's on your side, that's what happens."

His supporters, including many police officers, stood cheering and clapping as jurors left the courtroom. Judge M. Christine Allen-Jackson called for order.

"It's all over. We can move on with our lives," Gillespie exulted as he hugged his wife, Sandy. "I told you the truth would come out."

Gillespie has been suspended without pay since February 2006, when an investigation accused him of beating a South Philadelphia man who was stopped for allegedly running a stop sign. The Deptford police chief denounced the officer and supported his prosecution.

Defense lawyer Ron Helmer said he hoped Gillespie, a four-year police veteran, would be reinstated now that he has been acquitted.

"We're grateful to the jury for having done the right thing," Helmer said.

Helmer said the Deptford Police Department could still charge Gillespie with administrative offenses.

Retired Deptford Police Officer William Fritz said the charges were "100 percent about politics."

Deptford Police Chief John Marolt has said said he was offended by what he saw on the video of the traffic stop that led to the charges against his officers. He said it was the first time in 27 years with the police force that he had witnessed excessive force used by police in his 71-member department.

Two other Deptford officers face trials in the case. Patrolman Timothy Parks is accused of participating in the alleged attack. A third officer, Brian Green, is accused of lying about what he saw at the police station where another struggle allegedly occurred.

It was unclear yesterday whether prosecutors would proceed with those cases in light of the acquittal.

Senior Assistant Prosecutor Paul Colangelo left the courtroom without comment. The Prosecutor's Office later issued a statement saying: "We respect the decision of the jury. However, we strongly believe sworn law enforcement officers in this county should adhere to a standard of conduct, which certainly wasn't followed in this case."

After the verdict, jurors spoke privately with Gillespie, his lawyer and members of his family in the courthouse parking lot.

"I've been praying for him every single day," one juror said.

Gillespie thanked jurors for their verdict. Jurors refused to comment publicly.

"This is the best day of my life," Gillespie said before leaving the parking lot. "Finally, the good guys win one."

Before reaching the verdict, jurors asked the judge to allow them to review police-car video of the Feb. 2, 2006, confrontation between Gillespie and motorist Joseph Rao Jr., who was then 19.

The judge allowed jurors to review raw and enhanced versions of the video. The jury also asked the judge whether cursing and acting unprofessionally - which Gillespie admitted during his testimony earlier in the week - constituted official misconduct. The judge explained that it did not.

Rao was not in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.

Jurors deliberated more than four hours over two days before reaching the verdict.

During the two-week trial, the jury watched the 14-minute police-car video more than 10 times as it was dissected, slowed, stopped and replayed.

"This is one of those rare cases where the crimes are actually captured on audio and videotape," Colangelo, in his closing argument on Thursday. He urged jurors to remember the "awful sounds" that Rao made when he was sitting, handcuffed, in the backseat of the police cruiser after Gillespie and another officer climbed in and began to scuffle with him.

The video, captured by a dashboard camera in the second officer's police car, doesn't clearly show any blows and each side has a spin on what happened.

Helmer, Gillespie's attorney, told jurors that Rao is a liar and a felon who was convicted of making terroristic threats against Philadelphia officers in 2005. The lawyer also pointed out that Rao intends to sue the police.

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

Gillespie testified this week that a hostile Rao was kicking the police cruiser's interior and threatened to smash the car window and escape.

Gillespie said it was his "duty to go back there and subdue him" to prevent an escape.

"I placed my hand on his chest area and pushed him back," Gillespie told jurors. "I gave him, like. a blow-push to get him back in the seat." He said Rao then kicked him in the crotch.

The prosecution contends that Gillespie removed Rao's handcuffs, challenged him to a fight, and when Rao declined, began choking him.

Gillespie testified that Rao was taunting him, cursing at him, and threatening to kill his family.

The prosecutor told jurors that Gillespie and Rao were both "hotheads" and that Gillespie "showed himself to be a total liar." Rao, said Colangelo, couldn't have threatened to smash the police car's windows because it wasn't recorded by the police car's audio recorder.

Rao told jurors that he was handcuffed in the backseat of the police car when he cursed Gillespie and another officer, Timothy Parks. With that, he said, Gillespie dived into the car and repeatedly shouted: "You got something to say?"

When he didn't reply, he said, Gillespie choked him and he kicked the officer in self-defense.

Rao was treated for minor injuries and charged with aggravated assault against the officers. The prosecutor dropped the charges after an investigation.

Rao has filed a claim that he intends to sue the township and the two officers for $1 million.

Mantua Police Officer Drew Hayes, who trained at the police academy with Gillespie, said he hoped the verdict would send a message about police officers.

"It could happen to any of us. We try to do the right thing," Hayes said.

Watch the Deptford Township Police Dept. car-stop video at go.philly.com/policebeat

Contact staff writer Melanie Burney at 856-779-3876 or mburney@phillynews.com.

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