NEW YORK — On Friday morning, a six-person panel found Thabo Sefolosha, a shooting guard with the Atlanta Hawks, not guilty of obstructing governmental administration, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in a collaring that a teammate and onlooker called “racist.”
The announcement of the verdict came after only 45 minutes of deliberation, as a visibly emotional Sefolosha silently mouthed his thanks to the jury. Now, there’s speculation that Sefolosha might sue the NYPD for the broken leg he suffered during the scrum, which caused him to miss last season’s NBA Playoffs.
The charges in question stemmed from an encounter with the New York City Police at around 4 a.m. on April 8th, down the block from the popular athlete and celebrity-strewn nightspot, 10ak; several officers wrestled Sefolosha to the ground. At some point during the scrum, Sefolosha’s leg was broken during, and he suffered additional ligament damage.
But as to the sequence of events that preceded the injury, both the prosecution and the defense presented jarringly different versions over the course of the five-day trial.
Both parties agreed that Sefolosha, teammate Pero Antic and two female companions were at the club celebrating the Hawks’ clinching of the first overall seed in the Eastern Conference. The evening came to an abrupt halt when then-Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland and his fiancée, Katrine Saltara were stabbed at the conclusion of a heated argument with Shevoy Bleary-Murdock, the alleged perpetrator.
The police had established a crime scene and the cabaret unit was in the process of clearing the hundreds of patrons that were streaming out of 1Oak, shuttling them south towards 10th Avenue.
Here’s where the story begins to diverge.
In testimony provided on Wednesday, Sefolosha stated that Officer JohnPaul Giacona, peppered him with profanity screaming at him and singling him out for reasons unknown.
When Giacona testified, he denied that he was being in any way abusive or hostile, rather that he was merely being authoritative in the face of a messy, high-profile crime scene, thought he admitted that Sefolosha was in the process of heading away from 1Oak if doing so in fits and starts
Still, according to Sefolosha, Giacona pursued him and continued to press him, once again questioning why he was still in the area and reiterating his commands.
Sefolosha was waiting for Antic, who was lagging behind. This culminated in verbal exchange in which, as reported by the New York Times, a laughing Sefolosha said to Giacona: “You’re 5-foot-2.’ I said, ‘If you saw me in a different place, you wouldn’t say that. You’re a midget.’”
Sefolosha is 6-foot-7, while Giacona is in reality a tad taller, 5-foot-7, than Sefolosha’s estimate.
Giacona said more or less the same on Tuesday, that Sefolosha had told him: “You’re mad. You’re a midget. I’d be mad, too, if I was a midget.”
According to Sefolosha, Giacona shot back, “With or without a badge, I'm going to fuck you up and I can fuck you up."
During cross examination, Giacona stated he could not recall saying this to the “best of his recollection”—a Nixonian phrasing that Sefolosha’s attorney, Alex Spiro, would harp on in his closing statement.
It was during this juncture that Antic informed Sefolosha that Copeland had been stabbed. At one point during Thursday’s cross examination, the prosecutor, Francesca Bartolomey asked him to specify exactly when he’d learned the reason that 1Oak had been cleared to begin with, possibly to suggest that Sefolosha’s state might have been changed by this information, or that it would have caused him to become agitated.
But Sefolosha, Antic and the two women that accompanied them all testified that he remained calm right up until the moment he was on the ground. He described his state as “disappointed” with the police and somewhat confused as to why he was receiving so much attention, especially when there were so many other stragglers that were closer to the yellow police tape that could potentially have interfered with the ongoing investigation.
Sefolosha was about to jump into an Uber car on the corner of 10th Avenue when another officer, Daniel Dongvort, also began berating him, going so far as to open the car door.
A homeless person asking for money, Amos “True” Canty, approached Sefolosha. True has a semi-official job with 1Oak, paid under the table to help patrons find cars or deal with unruly drunks, and he was friendly with the members of the cabaret unit.
Canty testified that he had approached Sefolosha, but the prosecution and two officers called as rebuttal witnesses testified that it was another homeless person altogether. This line of questioning was seemingly an effort to call into question Sefolosha’s ability to recall the evening’s events.
When the prosecution asked Canty if he’d been paid by the defense for his testimony, he blurted, “Hell no! I'm supposed to be getting paid?!”
Sefolosha admitted that he got back out of the car to give True—or an individual that he thought was True—$20, but Dongvort began ushering True away from him.
“I’m just going to give the guy some money,’” Sefolosha said, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. “(The officer) grabbed my arm. I dropped the money. He said, ‘That’s it, you’re going to jail.’ I turned and tried to put my right hand behind my back. I had a lot of money in my left hand and I tried to put it in my pocket.”
Officer Richard Caster interpreted this as Sefolosha making an aggressive lunge towards Dongvort.
“Officer Dongvort was in a vulnerable position,” he testified. “I didn’t know what the defendant’s intentions were. I think the defendant’s actions were irrational. He should have left by that point.”
As to whether he was resisting arrest, Sefolosha claims that the orders were unclear and things escalated so rapidly that it was impossible to comply.
“Two or three officers were pulling me,” Sefolosha said. “I said, ‘Relax.’ They never gave me a direct order. One is pulling on my right. One is pulling on my left and someone had a hand on my neck. After five seconds, I realized they wanted me on the ground. I felt my leg going up, with somebody kicking me on my right leg.”
This is where the cell phone video obtained by TMZ kicks in showing Sefolosha surrounded by the police, one of whom takes out his baton, thought it was never actually used. It’s in the midst of this scrum that his leg was broken.
But the prosecution’s larger argument was that Sefolosha’s entire attitude during the five-odd minutes between leaving the club and the dog pile was one of defiance of authority, that “he wanted to play the star” and thought he was above being told “what to do by a ‘midget’ police officer,” as Bartolomey said in her closing statement.
Sefolosha could, according to the prosecution, have been arrested at any point prior to arriving at the vehicle, or that any action that scans as anything other than total and complete obedience in this situation—if everyone behaved like Sefolosha when told to vacate a crime scene—would result in “chaos.”
For Spiro, the police saw Sefolosha as nothing more than “a black man in a hoodie” as he said in his closing statement, borne out by the fact that the Giacona ignored Antic, a hulking, near seven-foot tall Macedonian prior to approaching Sefolosha, in addition to the scores of non-basketball playing stragglers.
The question of race was also brought up during Spiro’s opening statement, and briefly by Antic himself.
Antic had been arrested that night as well, though charges were eventually dropped when it was determined that the physical contact he made with an officer consisted of nothing more than a tap on the shoulder.
Antic was very clear about the motive for the initial arrest. According to an anonymous attorney that was present on Wednesday, when asked why Sefolosha was targeted, Antic, a second-language English speaker, said, "I thought it was for racist."
A couple of weeks ago, in an interview with the Croatian site, Jutarnji list, Antic said, “It was pure racism that rules America. Thabo is a black man, and all the officers were white... We never got an explanation for their behavior. Police there killing people, and nothing happens. “
But the jury sided with Sefolosha.
Outside the courtroom, when asked if he was surprised that the jury deliberated for so little time, Spiro raised an eyebrow and said one word: “No.”
Had Sefolosha been found guilty, he could have potentially faced up to twelve months in jail. He has been cleared to play, but during Thursday’s cross-examination, he revealed that he is still in the process of getting back to full strength, and that he’s “not 100%.”
Thefolosha expressed relief and happiness, in both English and French, thanking his lawyer, the jury, the Atlanta Hawks, and the American justice system for “allowing the truth to come out” and giving him the chance to clear his name.
National Basketball Players’ Association executive director Michelle Roberts also made a brief appearance in the courtroom on Thursday during the prosecution’s cross-examination of Sefolosha.
The NBPA has conducted its own investigation and given Roberts’ jubilant post-verdict tweet, it would not be at all surprising if she brought the full weight of her office to bear if Sefolosha does decide a civil suit. When asked by reporters if he would be doing so, he declined to say either way.
Considering that Sefolosha walked away from a plea deal that would have resulted in a day’s community service and no determination of guilt, and that the not-guilty verdict gives a civil suit a great deal of heft, it would be surprising if another court date with the NYPD isn’t on the horizon.