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BOSTON—A Boston Police Department (BPD) sergeant was found guilty in federal court Thursday of beating a Harvard undergraduate in a Brighton, Mass., station house two years ago.
Sgt. Harry A. Byrne Jr. faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 for violating the civil rights of Garett D. Trombly ’03 after arresting the then-Cabot House resident near the Boston College (BC) campus shortly after midnight on Sept. 9, 2001.
Byrne—whose lawyer said he was looking into possible appeals—was also convicted on four separate counts of attempted witness tampering, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000. Sentencing has been scheduled for Dec. 3.
During the U.S. District Court trial—which started Aug. 25 after almost a year of delay—prosecutors and witnesses graphically described how Byrne punched Trombly 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. Trombly’s jaw was broken in the incident, forcing him to eat through a straw for two weeks.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office also called upon four BPD officers who witnessed parts of Trombly’s arrest and beating to tell jurors of Byrne’s efforts in the ensuing weeks to persuade them to mislead federal investigators.
The jury unanimously rejected Byrne’s claim that he had used reasonable force in the incident. Taking the stand last week, Byrne admitted striking Trombly in the Brighton station house but said that he had reacted in a terrified split-second after seeing the student reach for what he thought was a weapon.
After a series of escalating confrontations between Byrne and several of Trombly’s friends on Sept. 7 and 8, 2001, Trombly was arrested for charges including assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. All charges against him were dropped, but the BPD’s Anti-Corruption Division and the Federal Bureau of Investigation soon began to examine Trombly’s allegations of abuse, producing a federal indictment in January 2002. Byrne has been suspended from active duty since October 2001.
Trombly told The Crimson Thursday that he felt a sense of relief at the apparent end of the drawn-out legal process.
“I think the jury returned the right verdict,” he said. “I’m glad it’s over.”
Now a student at Suffolk University Law School, Trombly said the experience has played a major role in motivating him to devote his life to fighting police and political corruption.
“This event crystallized my desire to pursue a career in justice,” he said. “I hope to some day help a victim of corruption like I was helped.”
Trombly said he had no plans to press civil charges against Byrne.
The BPD responded to yesterday’s verdict with a repudiation of Byrne’s brutality.
“These actions are cowardly and criminal, and are condemned by the many decent and honorable officers who serve the people of Boston on a daily basis,” BPD Commissioner Paul F. Evans said in a statement to the press.
But Thomas J. Davis—a lifelong friend of Trombly’s who witnessed part of the beating and testified in court last week—said that his faith in public institutions has been shaken.
“I’ve never looked at the whole city of Boston the same since that night,” he said after hearing of the verdict. “You always hear about these things, the corruption inside police departments, but I thought that was a thing of the past.”
Byrne’s lawyer, however, looked to the future. Libby suggested that with appeals potentially on the horizon, the story which brought together a 23-year police veteran and a junior economics concentrator still has some twists left in it after two years.
“I am very proud of Harry Byrne,” Libby said. “Here’s a man who did not fold when the federal government came after him back in January 2002, and he stood fast in this whole process, including trial where he took the stand in his own vigorous defense...So far as we’re concerned, we’re still looking forward and the case is not over.”
In six days of often-complicated questioning before the jury, both teams of attorneys strove to get witnesses to back up their competing versions of the fateful weekend in 2001.
Several told of Byrne’s arrival outside Davis’ 2021 Commonwealth Ave. apartment the night before Trombly’s arrest, working overtime on a detail sponsored by BC to break up parties and discourage underage drinking.
Trombly and several acquaintances said the sergeant had directed harsh insults at one woman before arresting a number of her BC basketball teammates.
They went on to say that the night of Trombly’s arrest had been interrupted when Byrne showed up outside a second gathering at Davis’ apartment, shouting profanities once again at the same woman.
Byrne, by contrast, insisted that he had spoken to her in a manner that was “stern” but always “fatherly.”
According to the prosecution, Trombly and Davis went to console their friend, now openly weeping. Byrne alleged that a visibly drunk Trombly had then spit on his uniform—a charge which the student said was entirely fabricated.
Once arrested and taken back to the District 14 station house, both sides agreed that Trombly had been brought to a guard room and uncuffed.
Trombly said that at this point Byrne began an obscene tirade and started viciously punching him with no provocation, breaking his jaw.
His account of the beating was substantiated by the testimony of several other BPD officers—speaking under a prosecution subpoena and immunity agreements—who witnessed the assault in part.
Trombly said their honesty on the stand had convinced him that the system was working.
“When four other officers are testifying against an accused officer, I think it’s a good sign—both that he’s guilty and that you can trust the police and the system,” he told The Crimson after the trial.
Testifying in his own defense, Byrne admitted to less extensive physical contact with Trombly in the guard room but presented an alternate explanation, saying that he had rushed to restrain the student when he saw him reaching for a possible weapon in a deep denim pocket.
The sergeant said that Trombly’s sudden move had brought back memories of the 1993 death of academy classmate Thomas F. Rose, a BPD officer fatally shot with his own weapon by an arrestee in a station house as Byrne looked on.
Byrne said he had acted reflexively, filled with fear for his life, before realizing that Trombly was only grabbing for a cell phone.
But Trombly and the BPD officer who arrested him on Byrne’s orders testified that the student’s cell phone had in fact been confiscated long before, when he was frisked on Commonwealth Ave.
After the guard room altercation, Trombly was charged on counts of assault and battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and public drinking—all of which he said were wholly unfounded, and all of which were eventually thrown out by the Suffolk County District Attorney for lack of evidence.
In the aftermath of Trombly’s injuries, BPD witnesses told jurors of Byrne’s concerted efforts to keep them quiet about the abuse they’d seen as investigators turned up the heat.
Byrne maintained that he had only told them not to spread what he thought were untrue rumors—an argument which the jurors found unconvincing in each of the four cases.
In retrospect, Trombly said he thought the case against his attacker had been airtight—though he felt a conviction had been by no means certain.
“Any time you go up against the word of a police officer, you’d better have your facts straight and have a lot of evidence on your side,” he said.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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