Friday, October 26, 2001

Conflicting details arise in testimony

By Marie McCain
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When and where Roger Owensby Jr. died are key questions in the separate trials of two Cincinnati police officers implicated in the asphyxiation death of the College Hill man last year.

        Prosecutors trying Officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg on felony manslaughter and misdemeanor assault charges say the officer used a choke hold, an illegal restraint, on Mr. Owensby during the struggle.

[photo] Cincinnati Police Officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg (right) talks with Officer Stephen Roach during a break Thursday in Officer Jorg's trial in the death of Roger Owensby Jr.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        In a nearby courtroom, other prosecutors trying Officer Patrick Caton for misdemeanor assault allege that he beat Mr. Owensby after the man had been handcuffed and subdued and again after he was placed in a patrol car.

        In both cases, the question of when Mr. Owensby died — either on the ground during the struggle or later while in patrol car — is proving crucial to the prosecution and defense arguments.

        In Officer Jorg's trial Thursday, five police officers offered conflicting testimony about when Mr. Owensby might have died.

        Prosecutors say Officer Jorg placed Mr. Owensby in a choke hold that killed him Nov. 7, during an attempt to to arrest him at a gas station at Langdon Farm Road and Seymour Avenue.

        Officer Darren Sellers, one of the officers who struggled to arrest Mr. Owensby, testified Thursday that when Mr. Owensby was sprayed in the face with a chemical irritant, the man did not react.

        The spray, Officer Sellers said, “feels like someone has thrown acid on you. It burns and it makes you sneeze a lot,” he said.

        Officer Sellers said Mr. Owensby did not move or speak after he was cuffed but lay on the ground. Officer Sellers said Officers Jorg and Caton carried Mr. Owensby to a Golf Manor police cruiser.

[photo] Hamilton County Coroner Carl Parrott examines the bloodied sleeve of Officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg.
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        Abraham Lawson, another Cincinnati police officer, said Thursday that he saw Mr. Owensby stagger between officers Jorg and Caton as they directed him toward the Golf Manor cruiser.

        Robert Heiland, the Golf Manor police officer who allowed Mr. Owensby to be placed in his cruiser, testified that Mr. Owensby continued to struggle with officers as they tried to place him in the back seat of the police car.

        The statements of Officers Lawson and Heiland contradict earlier testimony from a deputy coroner, who said forensic evidence shows Mr. Owensby was already dead when he was put into the cruiser. And Hamilton County Coroner Carl Parrott testified Thursday that dried patches of liquid on the sleeve of Officer Jorg's shirt were Mr. Owensby's blood and lung fluid, evidence of fatal oxygen deprivation.

        Although Officer Jorg has not testified, jurors heard parts of his version of the arrest during a video taken by a camera in a Cincinnati police cruiser.

        Officer Jorg can be heard telling another officer that his arm had been around Mr. Owensby's head during the struggle.

        “I had his head wrapped the whole time. My arms were across his forehead ... trying to hold him down. I was trying to hold him down,” Officer Jorg tells Cincinnati Police Sgt. William “Pete” Watts on the video.

        Earlier testimony indicated officers aren't trained to subdue people by holding down their heads.

        During several points in the testimony, Mr. Owensby's parents, Roger Sr. and Brenda Owensby, sat emotionless, but they left several times, sometimes appearing upset, other times heading toward the other courtroom, where opening statements began in Officer Caton's trial Thursday.

        Also among the spectators in the rear of the courtroom Thursday was Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach, who last month was acquitted of negligent homicide and obstruction of official business in the shooting death of Timothy Thomas on April 7. The shooting touched off three days of riots.

        The prosecution is expected to complete its case and the defense to begin its case as early as today. If convicted, Officer Jorg could face up to five years in prison.


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