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BOSTON—Testimony in the trial of a Boston Police Department (BPD) sergeant charged with violating the civil rights of a former Harvard student got underway yesterday, nearly two years after the then-undergraduate claimed the officer beat him at a Brighton station house.
Federal prosecutors alleged in U.S. District Court that BPD Sgt. Harry A. Byrne Jr. used excessive force on Garett D. Trombly ’03 while the student was under arrest shortly after midnight on Sept. 9, 2001, and that Byrne later tried to convince fellow officers to lie about the incident.
Attorneys for Byrne countered that the force the defendant used was reasonable and justified by suspicious behavior on Trombly’s part.
Some memories had faded, but Trombly described the alleged beating by Byrne vividly yesterday, testifying that the officer 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 unprovoked across the room into a bench. Trombly said Byrne broke his jaw, resulting in its being wired shut for six weeks.
Trombly was under arrest at the time, following an altercation with Byrne on Commonwealth Ave. near Boston College.
Byrne accused Trombly of spitting on his uniform while he was patrolling outside the apartment of one of Trombly’s friends, an accusation Trombly denied.
At the time, Trombly was charged with assault and battery on an officer, resisting arrest and public consumption of alcohol. All charges were later dropped for lack of evidence.
Trombly’s complaint about Byrne’s conduct sparked investigations by BPD’s Internal Affairs Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the latter of which culminated in Byrne’s January 2002 indictment by a federal grand jury on counts of deprivation of constitutional rights and witness tampering.
In his opening statement yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney S. Theodore Merritt ’74 sought to paint Byrne as a “bully with a badge,” arguing that the officer had lost his temper several times with Trombly and friends that weekend.
The testimony of the two witnesses Merritt called at the four-hour session, Trombly and his friend Maureen Leahy, bolstered this claim.
Leahy, now a BC senior, testified that Byrne had harassed her while arresting several friends the night before Trombly’s alleged beating. She said that Byrne verbally accosted her when he encountered her again the next night while on his underage drinking detail, and that Trombly’s only involvement before his arrest was to console her.
Trombly testified that after being taken to the station house, he was unhandcuffed and brought by Byrne to an empty room where he was beaten.
But defense attorneys argued that Byrne’s act was justified. In his opening statement, attorney Frank A. Libby Jr. said that as Trombly was being uncuffed in the station house he reached into his pocket for a shiny black object.
In the heat of the moment—“adrenaline racing, heart pounding”—Byrne reacted to restrain Trombly by pinning him to the wall, Libby said.
According to Libby, the object was later revealed to be a cell phone. But Trombly testified yesterday that his cell phone had been confiscated when he was arrested.
Libby contested the prosecution’s portrait of his client, describing Byrne as a calm and hard-working veteran cop. He also said that Byrne had faced rowdy opposition from students coming off of two alcohol-soaked nights.
In cross-examination, Libby and fellow defense attorney R. Matthew Rickman sharply questioned Trombly and Leahy on their recollections of the events of the nights in question.
When asked about specific details of his night prior to the alleged assault, Trombly replied over and over that he could not recall.
Still, Trombly, who was of legal drinking age at the time, was clear on one key point about the evening, asserting repeatedly that he had consumed at most three beers before being arrested. In a lighter moment, Trombly also recalled with accuracy the rules of the drinking game he was playing with friends that night in response to lawyers’ questions about “Beirut” or “Beer Ping-Pong.”
Regarding his client’s alleged witness tampering, Libby dismissed them as the result of a misunderstanding. Libby conceded that after reading published reports of Trombly’s broken jaw, which he believed at the time to be false, Byrne had conversations with subordinate BPD officers—but said that Byrne told them only to tell the truth, which he understood to be that Trombly had walked away from the station house without visible injuries.
Byrne’s trial began this week after almost a year of delays, false-starts and postponements. The trial date was pushed back four times, in part the result of problems Byrne had retaining counsel.
Jury selection occurred with little fanfare Monday.
If convicted, Byrne faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000 for each of the five charges filed against him.
The trial is expected to run until either next Wednesday or Thursday, after which presiding Judge Richard G. Stearns is leaving for Budapest on Justice Department business regarding weapons of mass destruction.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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