Jury selected for Millvale police officer’s stun gun trial
A jury has been selected to decide whether a Millvale police officer violated a suspect’s civil rights by repeatedly zapping him with a stun gun, even after he was handcuffed — an encounter recorded on another person’s cellphone.
The attorney for Millvale Officer Nicole Murphy doesn’t dispute she used the stun gun on Thomas Jason James Smith after his arrest for public drunkenness in September 2012. Rather, he contends the 30-year-old officer was justified in using it because she was trying to stop Smith from banging his head.
“This guy was out of control. They believed he was on some other kind of substance,” defense attorney Robert Stewart said after Murphy’s arraignment in June. “She had a choice of Tasering him to subdue him or letting him split his head open.”
Stewart didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment following jury selection Wednesday.
Opening statements in the case are scheduled to begin Monday morning in federal court.
The FBI began investigating after someone leaked a 52-second cellphone video of the incident to Pittsburgh-area media outlets in early 2013.
The video shows a shirtless Smith, then 28, sitting on the floor of the police station while he banged his head on the edge of a desk. Murphy then zaps him with the stun gun. Murphy reported in a criminal complaint that she used the stun gun to subdue Smith when he became violent, but Smith isn’t seen attacking her in the video.
The video also shows some emergency responders smiling and laughing at Smith’s behavior.
The prosecution and defense haven’t specified who took the video. Court documents filed in recent weeks suggest the case will boil down to the testimony of Murphy — who remains on unpaid leave — and another officer, part-timer Casey Bonincontro.
Prosecutors have asked the court for permission to raise issues relating to Murphy’s character if she testifies.
According to pretrial motions, prosecutors want to ask Murphy about a 2011 drunken driving arrest and about a man Murphy allegedly befriended or dated “who was known to her to have a drug-related criminal record.” Stewart has argued neither is relevant.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, are concerned that Stewart plans to use Bonincontro’s personnel files with the borough and other departments to allegedly show she violated various on-the-job rules.
The judge has yet to rule whether any of that can be used at trial.
The charge Murphy faces carries up to 10 years in prison and, because it’s a felony, would end her law enforcement career even if she avoids incarceration.