A 12-member jury was deliberating Thursday morning in the case of a Montgomery County police officer accused of police brutality toward a man this past summer.
Officer Kevin Moris, 32, was charged with second-degree assault and misconduct in office following the arrest of 19-year-old Arnaldo Pesoa on July 3 at an Aspen Hill McDonald’s. During the arrest, Moris can be seen kneeing Pesoa, who was lying face down on the sidewalk, in the back of the head.
Closing arguments in the case finished Wednesday afternoon in the trial, which began on Monday. Jurors began deliberating just before 3 p.m. Wednesday, and by 5:30 p.m. they had not reached a verdict, at which point Judge Nelson Rupp dismissed them. Jurors resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. Thursday.
The trial has included testimony from Moris and officers who were at the scene of the arrest. Attorneys from both sides showed videos of the arrest from cellphone and police body camera videos taken both inside and outside the McDonald’s. The attorneys urged jurors to examine the videos closely during their deliberations as key pieces of evidence.
Moris and his defense attorney Morgan Leigh have argued that the officer’s conduct was reasonable because Pesoa’s bloody saliva posed a threat, due to the possibility of infectious disease.
During closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Aubin suggested that Moris didn’t have to knee Pesoa in the back of the head to avoid contact with the blood.
“He [Moris] smacked his head with his knee when he knew it wasn’t necessary,” Aubin said. “At a minimum, he [Moris] could have said ‘stop spitting’… He could have taken his hair and turned his head in an opposite direction.”
Assistant State’s Attorney John Lalos said in his closing argument that Moris’s previous characterization of his actions as “dropping weight” on Pesoa didn’t accurately describe the officer’s behavior as seen in multiple cellphone videos. Lalos called it a “violent knee strike.”
“This isn’t dropping weight on anybody. Anybody watching that video would not call it dropping weight,” he said.
Lalos said Pesoa’s spitting wasn’t meant to harm Moris, but that he was simply trying to get rid of the blood in his mouth.
In addressing the question of why prosecutors didn’t call Pesoa as a witness, Lalos said the videos are self-explanatory.
Leigh, in her closing argument, countered that it was impossible to draw conclusions on Pesoa’s motivations for spitting because he didn’t testify.
“He [Moris] had every right to defend himself against a vile, dangerous assault,” Leigh said.
Leigh said Moris didn’t want to use force against Pesoa, but was forced to make a split-second decision when the suspect spat at his shoe.
“He [Moris] doesn’t want to knee him. He doesn’t want to hurt him,” she said.
Moris testified earlier Wednesday that he put a knee on the suspect’s upper back to keep him on his stomach. Moris also said he kept his hand on Pesoa’s head to prevent him from spitting.
Moris, an undercover officer who was wearing street clothes during the arrest, said after engaging briefly in conversation with Pesoa inside the McDonald’s, fellow undercover officer Scott Smith told him to arrest Pesoa, who did not comply with officers’ commands to stand up and put his hands behind his back, Moris said.
“I wanted to use the least amount of force possible,” Moris said.”
Moris said officers then engaged in a physical struggle in order to handcuff Pesoa. At one point during the struggle, Moris said he held Pesoa’s fingertips and that Pesoa yelled ‘you’re breaking my f—ing arm.’
“I was concerned I was going to break his fingers because we were pulling against each other,” Moris said.
Once outside the restaurant, officers placed Pesoa on the ground as Smith searched the teen for possible drugs and contraband, Moris said. Pesoa “tensed up” and tried to pull away, he said.
“We [officers] tried to control his hands. We don’t know if he’s armed or if he’s searching for drugs,” Moris said.
Moris said that Pesoa, who was bleeding from the mouth, spit at him twice, and in one case saliva landed on his right foot near the officer’s ankle where his skin was exposed. Moris said he became stressed.
“I’ve gone through blood exposure … and in that moment I’m worried about that,” he said. “I don’t know if I have any bruises or cuts. I don’t want any more blood exposure.”
The officer explained that during an arrest he made in 2017, he got blood on his hands when he had open cuts and went to the hospital. “I went through six months of blood work and testing to see if I was testing positive or negative for any disease,” he said.
Moris then demonstrated with another man in the courtroom how he pinned Pesoa’s head to the ground by holding his hair with his hand and putting his body weight on Pesoa’s upper back using his knee.
“This was the most effective way to deliver my body weight,” Moris said.
Moris also demonstrated how he later pulled Pesoa’s shirt up to cover his mouth in order to prevent him from spitting.
When asked by Aubin why he didn’t step away from Pesoa instead, Moris said the McDonald’s building’s exterior was in back of him preventing him from stepping back. Moris said using his knee to restrain the teen made the most sense in the moment.
“In the split second that I had to make a decision, this was the most effective way to control Mr. Pesoa from spitting,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org