Thursday, January 04, 2001

2 officers indicted in Owensby death




By Jane Prendergast and Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County grand jurors leveled unprecedented criminal charges Wednesday against two Cincinnati police officers accused of choking and hitting a man who died in their custody.

Jorg
Jorg
Caton
Caton
        Reaction to the charges came quickly, and once again revealed deep divisions in a community still struggling to understand what happened the night Roger Owensby Jr. died in a gas station parking lot two months ago.

        Mr. Owensby's parents expressed relief. Their attorney promised a lawsuit. Police urged patience and calm. The NAACP complained the charges were too lenient. And the officers maintained their innocence.

        But on Wednesday, the voice of the grand jury was the loudest.

        “You can't kill someone while affecting an arrest,” Prosecutor Mike Allen said. “It's really that simple.”

        Officer Robert Jorg, 28, an officer since June 1996, faces more than five years in jail if convicted of involuntary manslaughter and assault. He allegedly held Mr. Owensby around the neck while trying to subdue him in the Nov. 7 incident, sources said.

        Officer Patrick Caton, 34, a former U.S. Marine, was indicted on an assault charge for allegedly hitting Mr. Owensby during the arrest. He has been a Cincinnati officer since June 1997.

ROGER OWENSBY JR
owensby
    Age: 29 when he died Nov. 7, 2000.
    Family: Daughter Myiesha, 9; parents Roger Sr. and Brenda Owensby of College Hill.
    His life:
    • He was a high school athlete who followed in his father's footsteps, joining the U.S. Army in 1991. He stayed for six years and served overseas with his father.
    • Friends described him as a great dancer and a flirt. He had planned to go back to school to learn to be a music producer.
    • His family called him “Little Bit” because he was born prematurely at only 3 pounds.
    • Friends knew him as “L.A. Dre,” the same street name police knew him by when they stopped him Nov. 7.
        The assault charges both officers face are misdemeanors, with a maximum sentence of six months in jail.

        They were among 18 officers who ultimately converged on the Sunoco parking lot at Langdon Farm Road and Seymour Avenue a little after 7:30 p.m. Two officers had spotted Mr. Owensby and recognized him as “L.A.,” who escaped from them a week or so before during a drug investigation at the same spot.

        It was election night. While many Tristate residents sat home watching presidential returns, the arrest of Mr. Owensby went from officers calling for help to officers calling for paramedics. The father and Army veteran was in custody at 7:49 p.m., reported to be injured seven minutes later and pronounced dead at 8:47 p.m.

        “I didn't believe it would happen,” Essie Owensby, Mr. Owensby's 66-year-old grandmother, said of the indictments. “I do believe (the officers) did do something wrong. If they didn't do anything wrong, why is he dead?”

        Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman urged the public to understand that the charges are only allegations, not proof of guilt.

        “In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty,” he said, “unless, of course, you're a Cincinnati police officer, according to some in the vocal minority.”

THE CHARGES
    The involuntary manslaughter charge against Cincinnati Police Officer Robert Jorg is far from the most serious charge someone can face in an Ohio homicide case.
    But it also is not the most lenient.
    The possibilities range from aggravated murder and a possible life sentence to negligent homicide and possible probation. The severity of the charges depends on the circumstances of the alleged crime and on whether the accused person intended to cause a death.
    A description of the various Ohio homicide charges, from most severe to least severe:
    • Aggravated murder: To kill with “prior calculation and design.” In other words, to plan a slaying.
    • Murder: To “purposely cause another's death.”
    • Voluntary manslaughter: To kill while under the influence of a sudden passion or rage brought on by the victim.
    • Involuntary manslaughter: To unintentionally cause a death as the result of another crime, such as assault.
    • Reckless homicide: To recklessly cause another's death, as in an accident.
    • Negligent homicide: To cause another's death through an act of negligence.
        Mayor Charlie Luken cautioned against letting the indictments reflect on the entire police division.

        “I can't accept that,” he said. “It's unfortunate that the whole thing happened. Mistakes will be made, but every incident — no matter how egregious — is not an indictment of the entire police division.”

        The 11 grand jurors investigated the case for about a month before voting to indict the officers Wednesday. Grand jury proceedings are not public, but sources said witnesses testified that Officer Jorg put Mr. Owensby in a choke hold while attempting to subdue him. The witnesses also testified that Officer Caton struck Mr. Owensby during the arrest.

        Officer Jorg's lawyer, R. Scott Croswell, said his client did not choke Mr. Owensby or do anything improper.

        “It is true he was struggling to subdue (Mr. Owensby) within standard police procedures,” Mr. Croswell said. “But at no time did he choke Mr. Owensby and there is no physical proof that he did.”

        Mr. Allen said Officers Jorg and Caton did not talk to authorities during the investigation and neither testified before the grand jury. The other three officers directly involved in the arrest — David Hunter, Jason Hodge and Darren Sellers — did testify.

        Mr. Croswell said Officer Jorg did not talk to investigators because he was identified early as a target of the grand jury probe.

        He said Officer Jorg will plead not guilty and expects to take his case to a trial.

        Officer Caton's attorney, Merlyn Shiverdecker, said his client also will plead not guilty.

[photo] Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen answers questions about the indictments.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        No charges were filed against the other three officers. Attorney Kenneth Lawson, who represents Officer Hunter, said his client was eager to testify.

        “He knew he did nothing wrong, so when he was asked (to testify), he did,” Mr. Lawson said. “He had strong feelings about what happened. He wanted the truth to come out.”

        Both Officers Caton and Jorg turned themselves in almost immediately, and quickly made bail — $1,000 for Officer Caton, $5,000 for Officer Jorg.

        All five directly involved remained on paid administrative leave as they have been since the Nov. 7 incident. Chief Tom Streicher said he would meet with Safety Director Kent Ryan todayto discuss the status of all five, who now face an internal investigation.

        Norma Holt Davis, new president of the Cincinnati branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the group applauded the indictments but questioned why only two officers were charged. She also called the assault charges too weak; she expected voluntary manslaughter or a degree of murder.

        Other charges would require prosecutors, however, to prove intent.

        “The message (the lesser charge) sends is that the lives of African-American men are less valuable than the lives of other persons,” Ms. Davis said.

        Chief Streicher met with his top supervisors for two hours Wednesday and impressed upon them the importance of their guidance and leadership over the 1,000-member force. He bristled at suggestions that the indictments scarred the force.

        “I don't think it puts a black mark on the division in any way, shape or form,” he said.

        Officers have been indicted before. Two recently went to jail for soliciting sex on the job. Another former officer, Gregory Berting, pleaded no contest to negligent vehicular homicide after a June 1996 on-duty wreck that killed a Delhi Township teen-ager. He was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

        But authorities could not remember any officer ever being charged for killing a suspect during an arrest.

        “It's a sad day for Cincinnati,” said the Rev. Damon Lynch III, president of Cincinnati Black United Front, which urged a boycott of downtown businesses in protest of Mr. Owensby's death and alleged racial profiling by police.

        “It was a sad day when Mr. Owensby died and it's a sad day when a Cincinnati police officer is indicted for (involuntary) manslaughter,” he said. “It says we've still got work to do in our city in the way police uphold the law and in the way citizens obey the law.”

        John Helbling, the Owensby family's attorney, said the indictments were proof of deep-seated problems within the police division. Mr. Owensby died because of poor police procedures and because the officers had too little experience, Mr. Helbling said, not because they committed racial profiling, or targeting Mr. Owensby only because he was black.

        That's in contrast to the Rev. Mr. Lynch and ACLU attorney Scott Greenwood. They are preparing a federal lawsuit similar to ones in other parts of the country that have prompted dramatic change in other police departments.

        Federal investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI are continuing.

        While the court proceedings continue, Chief Streicher said his officers must trust their training, rely on their supervisors for guidance and get back to work.

        “Will this have an effect on our officers?” he asked. “Sure. To what degree, that depends on their level of commitment, their training. And they need to realize that business is going to go on as usual.”

        Enquirer reporters Robert Anglen and Kristina Goetz contributed.

- 2 officers indicted in Owensby death
Relatives rejoice over indictments
Family, friends support officers
Situation mirrors others across U.S.



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