By Serena Maria Daniels
DETROIT (Reuters) - A white former suburban Detroit police officer accused in the videotaped beating of a black motorist in January abused his power during a traffic stop, prosecutors said on Wednesday in opening statements for his state criminal trial.
Former Inkster, Michigan, police officer William Melendez, 47, has pleaded not guilty to charges of misconduct in office, assault with intent to do great bodily harm, and strangulation.
Melendez could be seen punching Floyd Dent in the head several times on a police dashboard camera video, one of a number of incidents across the United States that have fueled a national debate on race and policing. The trial, being held in Wayne County Circuit Court, is expected to last about two weeks.
"This is a case about power: at its core it's about whether William Melendez abused his power," Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Donaldson told jurors on Wednesday.
Prosecutors argued that Melendez beat Dent "16 times in the head for no apparent reason."
Melendez, who could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison in convicted, was fired in April from the Detroit suburb's police force.
Several law enforcement officers attended the trial in support of Melendez, who wore a dark suit in the courtroom.
Melendez's defense attorney James Thomas urged jurors to keep in mind that his client had been conducting surveillance in a high-crime area and said that Dent's movements fit those of someone fetching drugs.
"There's a reason they wear flak jackets out there. It's dangerous out there and Inkster is a dangerous city," Thomas said.
Thomas also said Dent was actively resisting arrest, thus forcing Melendez and a handful of other officers to restrain him by striking, kicking and shocking him several times with a Taser.
Dent, 58, who has said he suffered memory loss and other damage from the beating, earlier this year reached a $1.4 million settlement in a civil lawsuit against Inkster, which has a majority black population but a majority white police force. He was not present on Wednesday, but is expected to testify.
In the video of the traffic stop, Melendez can be seen approaching Dent's car with his gun drawn before the door opens and his partner pulls Dent out. Melendez then wraps an arm around Dent's neck and punches him on the head while his partner handcuffs him. The video of Dent's arrest was played for the jurors when the first witness took the stand on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Serena Maria Daniels; Writing by Ben Klayman; Editing by Eric Walsh)