A federal judge on Monday acquitted a former West Virginia State Police trooper who was accused of using excessive force during the roadside beating of a teenager in Martinsburg.
The November 2018 altercation sparked condemnation from the governor and national news media attention upon release of dashboard camera footage of the beating, and a civil lawsuit against two troopers and two sheriff’s deputies who played a role.
U.S. District Judge Gina Groh, however, acquitted former trooper Michael Kennedy of the federal indictment filed against him, ruling that federal prosecutors failed to meet the burden of proof against Kennedy.
“A slow and methodical review of the dash camera footage and the testimony clearly show during each of the four uses of force, every action by [the teenager] caused a reaction by [Kennedy],” Groh wrote in her verdict.
The incident began when the suspect struck a Berkeley County sheriff’s deputy’s cruiser and fled from multiple officers, leading them on a high-speed chase ending in a crash into a transformer, discharging flashes of a brilliant, blue light.
Kennedy and Trooper Derek Walker, along with Deputies Austin Ennis and Chris Merson, removed the 16-year-old male from the car through the window.
Four separate uses of force ensued: the four officers punching and kicking the suspect while trying to handcuff him; Kennedy punching him in the back eight times; Kennedy picking him up after the beating and tossing the limp, handcuffed juvenile to the ground; and Kennedy slapping his face twice.
In each use of force, Groh ruled, Kennedy was simply responding to resistance or aggression the suspect exhibited. For instance, she said, because the suspect resisted officers’ efforts to handcuff him and did not respond to verbal commands, the strikes were a reasonable means to gain control. While the suspect did not strike the troopers, Groh noted, he was “tensing up” and attempting to stand up.
While the “body toss” — as State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill described it to WV MetroNews — “caused pause” with Groh, she found prosecutors did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the force rose to an excessive level.
As for the two face slaps, Groh noted that no other officer felt compelled to step in, and that Kennedy used his “left, nondominant hand” for the slaps.
“He was not using force to inflict injury,” she wrote. “[Kennedy] was trying to get [the suspect] to snap out of it and comply with his verbal commands.”
Groh also ruled that prosecutors failed to prove the teenager sustained any bodily injury. While he was cut and bruised, she cited witness statements concluding that they came from the crash, not from the officers.
The teenager, identified only by his initials, did not testify at the October hearing, which proved to be a shortcoming in providing that he felt pain during and after the incident. However, as Groh wrote, “pain experienced during proper pain compliance strikes does not make the Defendant guilty of a felony offense.”
The case has ping-ponged forward since Gov. Jim Justice first brought public attention to it. The four officers were fired in January, although the two deputies were later re-instated.
A civil lawsuit against the four of them is still to be adjudicated.
Testimony presented at trial showed that Kennedy and Walker did not initially report the use of force, as policy requires. They did so only after a Berkeley County sheriff’s investigator watched the dash cam footage and notified the department. Kennedy was allowed to view the footage before offering a statement, which did not mention the slaps.
Both Kennedy and Walker have filed wrongful-termination grievances against the State Police.
A Gazette-Mail investigation found that a secretive internal review board cleared multiple uses of force against Walker just three weeks before the beating of the teenager.
Likewise, the investigation identified a steady practice of the State Police internally clearing its troopers’ uses of force while taxpayers pay the legal bills when subsequent, related lawsuits roll in.
The prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment.
Groh adjudicated the case via bench trial after both parties determined widespread publicity would make it difficult to impanel an impartial jury.
In her ruling, Groh said Kennedy was deprived of his right to trial by jury due to “inappropriate pretrial publicity.” While she said she recognized a public interest in viewing video evidence of alleged officer misconduct, this cannot supersede an officer’s due-process rights when accused.
Groh accused Berkeley County Prosecuting Attorney Catie Delligatti of improperly releasing the footage after Kennedy was indicted and describing the content to reporters.
Delligatti said in a written statement she released the dash cam footage after receiving a Freedom of Information Act request.
“I released the dash cam video pursuant to a FOIA request after the U.S. Attorney confirmed with me via email that their investigation was complete, and specifically that he was not requesting that I withhold the video,” Delligatti wrote in an emailed statement. “As there was no longer an ongoing investigation, and no order from the Court prohibiting disclosure, I had no legal basis to conceal public record from public view. It appears the Court would have preferred that the state conceal the public record from public view in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.”
Delligatti also pointed out that the governor and other officials had commented on the video and she only described who was who in the video. She didn’t mention him by name, but Cahill also spoke about the incident on WV MetroNews.
B. Craig Manford, an attorney for Kennedy, praised the trial for being fair and meticulous.
“Kennedy was overjoyed and we are grateful that he was able to receive a fair trial. He has had many sleepless nights over these events and is greatly relieved,” Manford wrote in an emailed statement. “He can move forward with his life that has been on hold for so long and can again concentrate on his family. He also lost his career with the West Virginia State Police and can now focus on building a new career with a clean record.”