Ex-Phoenix officer convicted of aggravated assault

AP News
Posted: Sep 17, 2013 7:52 PM
Ex-Phoenix officer convicted of aggravated assault

PHOENIX (AP) — A former Phoenix police officer charged with fatally shooting an unarmed man during a violent confrontation at a Phoenix mobile home three years ago was found guilty of an assault charge Tuesday that could send him to prison for several years, but avoided conviction on a second-degree murder count.

Jurors hearing the case against Richard Chrisman deliberated for about four days before announcing their verdict Tuesday.

They were unable to reach a verdict on the murder charge, but convicted him of aggravated assault for putting a gun to victim Danny Rodriguez's head when he questioned the officer about entering his house without a warrant.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said no decision has been made on whether to retry Chrisman on the second-degree murder and an animal cruelty charge for shooting the man's dog. The jury also was deadlocked on that charge.

Chrisman was charged after his partner said he fatally shot Rodriguez and his dog without justification during the October 2010 encounter. Chrisman, a nine-year veteran of the force, was later fired.

He faced the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge for allegedly putting a gun to Rodriguez's head. That charge carries a five- to 15-year sentence, with a presumptive term of 7½ years in state prison.

The jury reconvened Tuesday afternoon and found that the assault caused severe emotional harm to Rodriguez's family. That finding will allow Judge Warren Granville to impose the maximum sentence. He set a status conference for Oct. 18.

In court Tuesday, Chrisman wore a dark suit and showed no reaction as the verdict was read. At one point before jurors entered the courtroom, he reached back and squeezed the hand of his wife, who was seated behind him. Other Chrisman supporters at the hearing included more than a dozen off-duty police officers. Family members of Rodriguez sat in the front row on the other side.

After the verdict was read, Chrisman, 39, was taken into custody, and his wife broke down in sobs. Rodriguez's mother, Elvira Fernandez, was hugged by a woman sitting with her and left the court without comment.

Prosecutor Juan Martinez and defense lawyer Craig Mehrens left without comment. Joe Clure, president of the police union, said he respected the jury's work but disagreed with the verdict.

"I believe this decision exemplifies how difficult it is to be a cop today in this country," Clure said.

He noted the trial lasted more than a month, and jurors deliberated for four days. "Rich had a split second to make his decision," Clure said.

The case, to a large degree, boiled down to conflicting accounts from Chrisman and his partner, officer Sergio Virgillo — the only two people, besides Rodriguez, inside the trailer to witness the escalating confrontation.

Rodriguez's mother had called police to the home on Oct. 5, 2010, saying her son was violent.

Chrisman and Virgillo confronted Rodriguez at the door of his mother's trailer, and Chrisman forced his way inside.

Rodriguez asked to see a warrant, and prosecutors said Chrisman then put his pistol against Rodriguez's head and told him he didn't need one. Mehrens told jurors that didn't happen, but Martinez said DNA on the officer's pistol and a bruise on the dead man's temple show it happened the way Virgillo testified.

The two officers had difficulty controlling Rodriguez, and both fired their stun guns with little effect. Chrisman used pepper spray on Rodriguez, then shot his dog. Prosecutors say the animal was not threatening the officers.

Virgillo said Rodriguez then got his bicycle and tried to leave the tiny trailer home, but Chrisman wouldn't allow it, and a tussle began. Virgillo testified that Rodriguez was backing away and no longer a threat when Chrisman fired, but Chrisman told jurors he was afraid Rodriguez was going to "smash my brains in" with the bike.