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BPD Officer Charged in Assault Testifies

By Simon W. Vozick-levinson, Crimson Staff Writer

BOSTON—The Boston Police Department (BPD) sergeant charged with violating a Harvard undergraduate’s civil rights two years ago told jurors yesterday that he used reasonable force on the student in a split-second reaction to suspicious behavior.

In his first substantive public statement since the incident, Sgt. Harry A. Byrne Jr. admitted that he struck Garett D. Trombly ’03 in a Brighton station house after Trombly’s arrest in the early morning of Sept. 9, 2001. But Byrne, a 23-year BPD veteran, said that he had acted reflexively out of fear for his life when he saw Trombly reach for a black object in his pocket—which he said turned out to be a cell phone. Byrne said that at the time, his mind was filled with memories of a 1993 incident in which a close friend on the force was shot and killed by an arrestee inside a station house while he watched helplessly.

Federal prosecutors allege that Byrne beat Trombly without provocation, breaking his jaw, and later instructed several BPD officers to lie to investigators looking into the incident.

After a series of altercations with Byrne near Boston College in the fall of 2001, Trombly—then a junior economics concentrator—was arrested for a number of charges including assault and battery on a police officer. Byrne said again yesterday that Trombly spit on his uniform and swatted at his hand when he came to break up a noisy party on Commonwealth Avenue for the second night in a row.

All charges against Trombly were eventually dropped, and Byrne soon became the focus of federal and internal BPD investigations. Trombly and several other witnesses testified last week that Byrne punched him in the face with closed fists, held him by the throat with one hand while striking him with the other and threw him across the room into a bench. They said that the sergeant directed a storm of obscenities and insults at Trombly during and before the alleged beating.

Byrne testified yesterday that after seeing Trombly make a sudden move, he hit the student with the heel of his hand, roughly pinned him against a wall-mounted mirror in the station house guard room and eventually slid him down on to a bench. He denied any further violence.

According to Byrne, he had reacted in a frantic split-second when Trombly—in the process of being unhandcuffed—used a free hand to grab for something in his deep pocket. Byrne said that at the time, he thought the student could have been pulling a knife or gun.

“He was a danger to himself and others,” Byrne testified.

In an emotional display yesterday morning, the sergeant also testified that in the chaotic instant before he realized what Trombly was grasping for, he had been reminded of a tragic episode from more than eight years earlier.

Pausing to compose himself more than once, his voice frequently cracking, Byrne described the death of Thomas F. Rose, a BPD officer fatally shot in a station house by a prisoner being uncuffed at the booking desk. Byrne said that he had stood just feet away—prevented from intervening by a stuck door—as his classmate and friend was shot three times with his own weapon. He testified that as Trombly reached for his pocket, memories of that night flooded back.

“I was scared stiff,” he told jurors, using a phrase repeated several times during his testimony. “I was scared for my life at that very moment.”

Within seconds, Byrne said, he realized that Trombly had only been reaching for a cell phone.

Trombly and others have testified that the phone was in fact confiscated by police earlier, at the time of the arrest, and that it sat on a guard room table during the incident. They have said that after beating Trombly, Byrne then picked up the phone and hurled it at a wall, seized by rage.

Byrne said yesterday that he had taken the phone from Trombly for the first time in the guard room, and said that he had flung it away out of distaste at having become so worked up “all over a stupid cell phone.”

Byrne said Trombly then asked him, “Is this where you beat me up now?”

Echoing the account of Trombly and several prosecution witnesses, Byrne acknowledged that he replied with a string of profanity strewn insults, but adamantly maintained that he drew the line at insulting Trombly’s mother, as the prosecution claimed he had.

In cross-examination, Assistant United States Attorney S. Theodore Merritt ’74 called Byrne’s version of the night into question, noting that the sergeant and his lawyers had never offered this story before last week.

The sergeant denied the prosecutor's charge that he instructed several subordinate BPD officers to mislead investigators. Byrne said that after hearing of Trombly’s claim that the officer had broken his jaw—a story which he said he thought was false at the time—he reassured the officers and advised them against spreading rumors. He insisted that he never told them to lie.

Byrne also disputed the claim of several witnesses that he had berated a friend of Trombly’s immediately before his arrest, saying that his attitude towards the woman was “stern” but “fatherly.”

In addition to Trombly, prosecution witnesses in the case have included two BC students who attended the parties on the nights in question, as well as a close friend arrested along with Trombly who testified that he witnessed part of the alleged beating.

On Thursday, the prosecution called Cynthia G. McGinn, the emergency room doctor who diagnosed Trombly as having a displaced jaw fracture the morning after the alleged incident. McGinn, who is also an instructor at Harvard Medical School, said the injury was consistent with a substantial impact, comparing it to the damage done by a car accident.

Prosecutors have also called a number of BPD officers who witnessed parts of the evening of Trombly’s arrest or were involved in the investigation of the incident—several of whom spoke under compulsion orders and immunity agreements. On Friday, a BPD lieutenant who was present in the station house at the time testified for the defense.

Testimony in the trial, which began with jury selection Aug. 25, is expected to wrap up with a final defense witness this morning.

If convicted, Byrne faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000 for the civil rights charge, as well as up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000 for each of the four counts of witness tampering.

—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at vozick@fas.harvard.edu.

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