Contempt hearing set in Alabama excessive police force case

AP News
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Posted: Feb 25, 2016 7:26 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A contempt hearing has been scheduled for an Alabama police chief and captain accused of violating a sequestration order and attempting to intimidate witnesses in an officer's excessive-force trial.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Haikala on Thursday ordered Madison Police Chief Larry Muncey and Captain Terrell Cook to appear in court March 22.

Officer Eric Parker was acquitted of a federal charge of using excessive force against 58-year-old Sureshbhai Patel in February 2015 but faces a separate state assault charge and a federal civil lawsuit that includes allegations of assault, excessive force, illegal search and more.

The department moved to fire him but Parker's attorney, Robert Tuten, has said the termination was put on hold pending the outcome of his cases.

The court believes Muncey and Cook violated a sequestration order during Parker's first trial, Haikala said in a 15-page filing. The order was violated, she wrote, when they read details of testimony given by Parker's colleagues on news media websites that were being updated live from the courtroom and had another officer monitor the trial when Parker had subpoenaed them as witnesses.

Prosecutors initially sought to use Muncey as an expert witness in the first trial — which exempted him from the sequestration order — but later decided not to. Tuten then sought to bar the chief from the courtroom.

Muncey and Cook had been excluded from the courtroom to block them from hearing the testimony of other witnesses, but Haikala also acknowledged in an opinion filed Jan. 29 that neither the court nor federal prosecutors explained the sequestration order to them.

Parker's first trial included officers who testified for both the prosecution and defense, and was halted for a day while the judge held closed-door hearings with Parker's colleagues on allegations of witness interference.

A sergeant and lieutenant testified that Muncey and Cook sent a subordinate to the courtroom to monitor testimony of Parker's colleagues and had sent text message and email exchanges about it, according to Haikala's order. Muncey also allegedly told the sergeant who was monitoring the case that he was reading updates on a local television station's live blog. Haikala also said evidence from the private hearings indicated that Muncey and Cook had discussed testimony with each other and other witnesses.

A corporal said Muncey called him into his office to debate his testimony about the reasonableness of Parker's actions and Cook was present for the entire discussion. An email that Muncey sent to six subordinate officers about their testimonies based on what he saw and read in local news media outlets supports the notion that he willfully violated the sequestration order, Haikala said.

"The conduct in which Chief Muncey and Captain Cook engaged not only significantly disrupted Mr. Parker's first trial, but also eliminated the parties' ability to call either Chief Muncey or Captain Cook as a witness in both of the Parker trials," Haikala wrote.

Muncey's attorney, Jerry Barclay, says the chief never attempted to intimidate witnesses or influence their testimony.

"Neither the Judge nor the prosecutors suggested to Chief Muncey in any way that he should not monitor the testimony of witnesses, either by following media reports or by having a subordinate keep him apprised of the testimony," Barclay said in a statement.

"Consistent with his responsibilities as Chief of Police, Chief Muncey did his best to keep his finger on the pulse of the Parker case. His role as Chief required him to do no less."

Phone calls and emails to Cook's attorney, Brian White, were not immediately returned.

The charges against Muncey and Cook are Class B misdemeanors, which Haikala said are punishable by 180 days imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000.

Federal prosecutors in Parker's civil rights trials may be called as witnesses in the contempt hearing, Haikala said.

Private attorney and former Alabama State Bar President Anthony Joseph has been appointed by the court to prosecute contempt charges against Muncey and Cook.