MoCo officer to take stand in his own defense
A Montgomery County police officer on trial on an assault charge is expected to take the witness stand Tuesday to explain why he hit a teenager on the head with a tactical police baton 11 months ago.
George Saoutis likely will tell jurors the blow was an accident, carried out as he was trying to grab the suspect's right hand to place him in handcuffs. The victim was taken to the hospital, where doctors inserted 7 to 8 staple-type stitches to close the wound.
"I lost a lot of blood," the victim, Adair Hernandez, who was 15 when he was struck, said from the witness stand Monday, the trial's opening day.
It is rare that a police officer in Montgomery County goes on trial for excessive force or violence, let alone takes the stand to defend himself, according to attorneys in the case.
Saoutis is on administrative leave from the department. He was a three-year veteran on March 3, 2010, when the incident occurred. A former Metro transit police officer who previously served in the Marine Corps, he is married with four children. His wife sat in the courtroom audience Monday. Saoutis has been involved in other controversial incidents.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Robert Hill described the events leading up to the confrontation, and how Saoutis lied about it afterward to try to cover his tracks.
A group of teenagers had gathered outside an arts school in Wheaton, some of them bringing skateboards. Owing to cold weather, a desire to smoke marijuana, or both, at least part of the crowd took shelter inside a storage container, according to testimony.
Police received a report that some of them were writing graffiti, known as tagging.
Saoutis and others responded. As he pulled up, kids came flying out of a door in the container, running in different directions. The officer chased one of them, and pulled out the metal, telescoping tactical baton, known by the trade name "ASP."
Hill said police are trained to strike arms and legs to subdue suspects. "You don't hit somebody in the head with something like this," Hill said of the baton.
But that's what Saoutis did, Hill said, even after the suspect had slowed to a fast walk and had his hands up.
"What makes this case even worse," Hill said, and then described Saoutis's efforts to cover up the assault.
At first, Saoutis told a supervisor he didn't hit the teenager with his ASP, and repeated the claim in a report.
A week later, Hill said, Saoutis changed his story, telling the supervisor he needed to talk in a private back room.
"Everything I believe in went out the window last week," the officer told his supervisor, according to Hill, "I was scared and nervous. I hit the kid in his head while his hands were up."
Saoutis's attorney, James F. Shalleck, wasted no time telling jurors that Saoutis is a skilled officer who protects them.
"Police Officer Saoutis is not guilty of assault," Shalleck said. "You know what he is guilty of? He's guilty of being an aggressive, caring protector of you and I. He's an active officer who is on the streets trying to protect us. And do things happen in the heat of these things? Yes they do. It's not a perfect world. Nobody's perfect. Things happen. And this was an unfortunate incident. But it was an accident. There was no intent to hurt this young man. None."
Shalleck said Saoutis pulled out his ASP early in the chase, because the officer had come to view the baton as deterrent.
"People see an ASP, they'll stop," Shalleck said.
But the teenager didn't. After Saoutis caught up to him, he was concerned the kid had an unknown object in his left hand, Shalleck said. So the officer tried to grab that hand, reach up to knock down the 15-year-old's right hand, grab both hands and place him in handcuffs. That's when the officer struck the teenager with the ASP, Shalleck said.
"He didn't mean to do it. But then he did something very stupid," Shalleck said.
By that, the lawyer said, his client tried to cover his tracks because he didn't want to get in trouble. One lie apparently led to another.
"Once the toothpaste came out of the tube, you can't get it back in," Shalleck said.
What's important, he stressed to the jury, was that Saoutis came clean a week after the incident.
"Stupid? Yes. Regretful? Yes. Crime? No. Because at the end of the day he told police brass what happened," Shalleck said.
The teenager, Hernandez, testified that he reacted to being struck with a sharp comment after being struck.
"Why the ---- would you hit me on the head," he said he told Saoutis.
Hernandez said a short time later, after he'd been led to a police car, Saoutis himself had a direct way of telling him to lean over.
"He told me to kiss the hood," Hernandez said. "Then I put my head down, and then I realized, like, I saw the drips of blood coming down, and then I touched my head, and I realized that I was bleeding."
The teen is not facing any charges in the incident.
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