A Montgomery County police officer was found guilty of assault in office by a jury Thursday in county circuit court following accusations that he used excessive force while arresting a teenager last summer.
The 12-member jury convicted Officer Kevin Moris on charges of second-degree assault, but found him not guilty of misconduct in office. Moris, 32, was charged following the July 3 arrest on drug charges of Arnaldo Pesoa, 19, at an Aspen Hill McDonald’s. During the arrest, Moris was captured on video kneeing the prone Pesoa in the back of the head. Moris will be sentenced Feb. 7.
Jury deliberations began just before 3 p.m. Wednesday. Judge Nelson Rupp dismissed the jurors at about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday and asked them to resume deliberations at 9 a.m. on Thursday. The jury delivered the verdicts at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday.
Prosecutors from the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office argued during the trial that Moris went too far in kneeing Pesoa.
Montgomery County State’s Attorney John McCarthy told reporters following the verdict that it was a difficult case to prosecute.
“There are times that require us, where we are expected to hold the police to a standard, to honor the oath they took here in Montgomery County,” McCarthy said. “We honored that oath by bringing this case to trial.”
In an interview, McCarthy said cellphone videos that were taken of the arrest were essential to the prosecution’s case.
“Without any question, the video was the key,” he said.
Pesoa’s older brother Riccardo told reporters that an “example” had to be made of Moris and that he and his family are happy with the verdict.
“I think what he [Moris] did was horrible,” he said.
Riccardo Pesoa added that sitting through the trial was emotional for him and his family and that it had been several months since he had seen the videos of his brother being arrested.
“It was tough to watch those videos over and over again. I had to watch it again [in court] and it was tough. We were pretty emotional in the courtroom.”
Moris’s defense attorney argued that the officer used force to avoid contact with Pesoa’s bloody saliva, which he had spat during the arrest. Officers, they said, are trained to avoid blood because of the potential for infectious disease.
Assistant State’s Attorney Michael Aubin suggested in his closing argument Wednesday 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 [the videos] 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.
During the trial, attorneys called Moris and several police officers who participated in the arrest to testify. Pesoa was not called. Prosecutors said they didn’t call Pesoa as a witness because the videos are self-explanatory.
Defense attorney Morgan Leigh said Moris didn’t want to use force against Pesoa but had 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.
Leigh said 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.
Moris testified 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 at the time of the arrest, said fellow undercover officer Scott Smith told him to arrest Pesoa after the suspect did not comply with the officers’ commands to stand up from his seat inside the McDonald’s 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 once case saliva landed near his right 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 behind him and it prevented 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