Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Jorg case left unsettled

Not guilty of assault, but no decision on more serious charge

By Marie McCain and Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jurors acquitted a Cincinnati police officer Tuesday on a misdemeanor assault charge in the death of a College Hill man, but could not agree on a verdict on involuntary manslaughter.

        The mistrial on the felony charge means Officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg, the first Cincinnati officer ever indicted in the death of a suspect, could face trial again.

[photo] Kristin Jorge, wife of Officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg (foreground), hugs her mother as the verdict in her husband's trial is read.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        He was accused of killing Roger Owensby Jr. Nov. 7 during an arrest in the parking lot of a Roselawn gas station.

        The death of the African-American man during a confrontation with Cincinnati police was the first of two in five months and reignited allegations of poor treatment of black people by city officers.

        The indictments of Officer Jorg and two others started an unofficial work slowdown by their fellow officers, which was followed by the most violent spring and summer Cincinnati has seen in 30 years.

Complete coverage in our special section.
        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said he would discuss today the possibility of re-trying Officer Jorg with his two deputies who handled the case.

        Also a factor: the jury's vote. He did not know that score Tuesday night, but said he could find it out.

        “We'll go over the strengths and weaknesses of the case,” he said.

[photo] Roger Owensby Sr. and his wife, Betty, parents of the man who died in an arrest by Cincinnati police, listen to the verdict.
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        The streets of Cincinnati remained quiet through midnight.

        Mr. Owensby's parents, Roger Sr. and Brenda, sat on the edge of their courtroom bench at 6:20 p.m. Tuesday as a court clerk for Judge Thomas Nurre announced both the acquittal and the hung jury. Officer Jorg sat expressionless while his wife, Kristen, burst into sobs.

        Neither the Owensby nor Jorg families spoke as they left the courtroom through different doors.

        Police already had prepared for any unrest that might result from a verdict, though it came only a little more than a week into a trial initially expected to last much longer.

        The jury deliberated for about 15 hours over two days.

        The verdict from 10 white and two black jurors quickly drew sharp reaction from some of the city's black activists.

        “It kind of stuns me that we can't convict a police officer of doing wrong,” said the Rev. J.W. Jones, a Carthage pastor and vice president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati. “And our police do wrong. This drives a stake in the heart of race relations. ... To me, Cincinnati is back in the days of the 1950s.”

        Scott Croswell, Officer Jorg's lawyer, said the verdict speaks well for his client and the entire police division.

        “I'm pleased with the verdict,” he said. “I've maintained throughout that Blaine Jorg didn't try to hurt anyone.”

    Here are reactions to a Hamilton County jury's verdict that Cincinnati Police Officer Robert Jorg was innocent of a misdemeanor assault charge in the Nov. 7 death of Roger Owensby Jr. Jurors, however, could not reach agreement on the more serious involuntary manslaughter charge.
    “After this, we were still in deadlock and believe that we will not be able to arrive at a unanimous decision.”
    — The jury, writing to Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Thomas C. Nurre.
    “We're satisfied with the job that the jury did. They asked a lot of questions of the judge and in no way shape or form are we critical of the jury. Convicting a police officer in Hamilton County is difficult. It's an uphill battle.”
    — Mike Allen, Hamilton County prosecutor.
    “I'd hoped the city would be just, that somewhere along the line people would have the inclination to do the right thing.”
    The Rev. J. W. Jones, Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Church in Carthage.
    “I am surprised by the outcome. Obviously we would all benefit by knowing the thinking of the jurors.”
    — Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey
    “He's relieved, but disappointed that it is not a final resolution. He just wants the whole thing to be over for himself and his family.”
    — R. Scott Croswell, defense attorney for Officer Jorg.
    “We don't want any violence to take place. It's too early to talk about any reaction. People are waiting to see the process take course.”
    — Alicia Reece, Cincinnati City Council member.
    “I think we have a system and we have to respect that system. The jury came back with (a verdict) and we have to respect that.”
    — Phil Heimlich, Cincinnati City Council member.
    “It's Cincinnati at its best. It's like Timothy Thomas. Black life means nothing. All we want is equity. We want a piece of this town. We want inclusion. All we get is our children arrested. The police division has not admitted any guilt. They have got just a clean bill of health. Somewhere there is going to be justice. Justice has got to come. I like Cincinnati, but it is about time for a change.”
    — Nashid Shakir, a 50-year-old Avondale resident.
Cincinnati Officer Robert “Blaine” Jorg was charged with involuntary manslaughter, a felony, and assault, a misdemeanor.
    According to Ohio's criminal codes, for a conviction on the manslaughter count, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Jorg caused the death of Roger Owensby Jr. while committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor.
    In this case, that misdemeanor was assault.
    To convict on the assault charge, prosecutors had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Jorg knowingly caused or attempted to cause physical harm to Mr. Owensby.
    If he had been convicted of the felony, Officer Jorg could have been sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison. The misdemeanor would have sent him to jail for up to six months.
        Keith Fangman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he hoped Officer Jorg would not be tried again.

        “Any attempt to pursue this by the police critics,” he said, “would be seen as a politically motivated witch hunt.”

        Laverne Briggs, 72, who owns Nanny's Learning Center in Avondale, where windows were broken during the April riots, said the verdict means black Cincinnatians now must turn to next week's election for change.

        “In the black neighborhoods we knew what was going to happen because nobody else has been convicted,” she said, referring to the September acquittal of Officer Stephen Roach in the death of Timothy Thomas.

        Mr. Owensby, 29, died of oxygen deprivation. Jurors heard mixed explanations for what happened Nov. 7, with differing viewpoints from other police officers on the scene.

        The one witness who said she saw Officer Jorg hold Mr. Owensby around his neck admitted she had smoked pot that night and had purchased marijuana in the past from the dead man.

        Numerous times Tuesday, families of both men and spectators reconvened in Judge Nurre's courtroom, to hear jury questions regarding the complex definition of involuntary manslaughter, a felony.

        For a conviction on the felony, Ohio law required that the jury find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Jorg caused Mr. Owensby's death while committing or attempting to commit a misdemeanor. If he had been convicted, he could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison.

        Testimony showed that four officers, in addition to Officer Jorg, had wrestled Mr. Owensby to the ground. Even coroners testified they were unsure whether death was caused by a choke hold on his neck or compression on his torso.

        The defense, which did not call any witnesses, argued that Officer Jorg grabbed Mr. Owensby around the head, not the neck, and that prosecutors had not proven Officer Jorg's action in particular killed Mr. Owensby.

        The Owensby family said they wouldn't comment until the completion of the trial of Officer Patrick E. Caton, charged with misdemeanor assault stemming from the same incident. His trial continues today.

        The Rev. Damon Lynch III, leader of the Cincinnati Black United Front, called upon members of the faith and business communities to join him in urging prosecutors to retry the case.

        “At this point, another family has found no justice in Cincinnati,” said the Rev. Mr. Lynch, a co-chair of the mayor's Cincinnati CAN group. “Eventually, what we have to do is take these cases out of the hands of the judicial system by having stronger administrative policies.”

        Jurors initially said Tuesday afternoon that they thought they might be deadlocked. Judge Nurre asked them to try again. About 6:15 p.m., they said it was no use.

        They'd asked to again review the testimony of Dr. Daniel L. Schultz, a Hamilton County deputy coroner. They had two specific questions — about the bruises on Mr. Owensby's back and about what could cause mechanical asphyxia, the official cause of Mr. Owensby's death.

        After receiving at least some of that information, the jury sent out this note: “After this, we were still in deadlock and believe that we will not be able to arrive at a unanimous decision.”

       Enquirer reporters Tom O'Neill, Kevin Aldridge, Kristina Goetz, Robert Anglen, Susan Vela, William A. Weathers, Dan Horn and Randy Tucker contributed.


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