A few years ago, an inmate at the Westchester County Jail died after he was beaten up by a corrections officer, Cote. The U.S. government brought an excessive force claim against Cote under the Federal civil rights statute, known as section 242, which criminalizes the use of excessive force by law enforcement. The case went to trial, and the jury convicted Cote. The trial court then vacated the conviction on a number of grounds, including its belief that inmate witnesses gave incredible testimony. The Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction.
The case is United States v. Cote, decided on September 24, 2008. At trial another corrections officer and three inmates testified about the beating. They recalled that Cote was angry that the victim hit another officer and that Cote punched and kicked the victim extensively. Also testifying was a medical witness from the local hospital who described the extensive external and internal injuries to the victim, Zoran Teodorovic, which included head injuries and multiple fractures in several areas. The medical witness said it was unlikely the victim sustained the injuries by simply falling to the floor.
Although the jury convicted Cote of using excessive force, the trial court vacated the verdict, reasoning that the inmate testimony was unreliable and incredible and not consistent with contemporaneous photographs which did not reflect severe injuries. The Court of Appeals reinstates the guilty verdict on the basis that the trial court has no authority to second-guess the jury's credibility assessments, particularly since "four eyewitnesses testified that Cote viciously assaulted Teodorovic while he was lying on the ground, already in a position of weakness." True, the witnesses gave conflicting accounts about how many times Cote kicked and beat the victim. But, as the Court of Appeals notes, "to the extent the inmate witnesses' testimony on the number of stomps and kicks to Teodorovic was inconsistent, however, the jury was entitled to reject the extremes of the testimony and conclude that the truth lay somewhere in between."
As for the photographs which did not depict the consequences of this brutal beating, the district court overlooked the medical testimony that serious internal injuries like those sustained by the victim are not always captured on film, and that CAT scans before the jury did reflect those injuries to the skull and brain.