East Haven Officer Pleads Guilty In Civil Rights Case, Might Avoid Prison
By DAVE ALTIMARI,
The Hartford Courant
7:43 PM EDT, September 21, 2012
One of four East Haven police officers charged in a federal indictment with terrorizing members of the town's Latino community pleaded guilty Friday at U.S. District Court and could avoid prison in exchange for cooperating with the government.
Sgt. John Miller, 43, was among those involved in crimes ranging from using excessive force to obstructing justice, prosecutors charged. He had previously pleaded not guilty.
In exchange for an agreement to cooperate and possibly testify against others officers, the government agreed to recommend that he avoid prison time. Officers Dennis Spaulding, Jason Zullo and David Cari still face charges. Their trials are expected to begin in January.
Miller pleaded guilty to one count of deprivation of civil rights. He had faced a maximum of 10 years in prison, although federal guidelines call for 12 to 18 months, if convicted. His sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 1.
Miller read a short prepared statement before Chief United States District Judge Alvin W. Thompson. He acknowledged that he had jabbed a handcuffed suspect, referred to in court only as N.D., in the chest.
"I take full responsibility for my actions and I apologize to the court and anybody else I may have hurt,'' Miller said.
His attorney, Donald Cretella, was quick to point out after the hearing that Miller is "adamant that he is not pleading guilty to hurting any minorities."
"He pleaded guilty to punching one guy in the stomach and that guy was not even a minority. He was an Italian,'' Cretella said.
At Miller's unexpected late Friday afternoon court appearance, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dierdre M. Daly revealed a cooperation agreement in which Miller agreed to "testify before any grand jury or at any court proceeding" requested by the government.
An attorney for one of the other officers awaiting trial said he relishes the opportunity to cross-examine Miller.
"I am stunned,'' said attorney Norm Pattis, who is representing Zullo. "There is nothing to the case that I can see. Someone suffered from a failure of nerve. If a cop punching someone in the stomach is a federal crime, than there are more criminals in law enforcement right now than there are in jail right now in Connecticut."
Miller, a 17-year-veteran, is currently on administrative leave from the department. It is unclear how the plea will affect his status.
"Today's event is unfortunate for our Police Department and the East Haven community; however we have been and will continue to move our Department forward working for a better future that we can all be proud of,'' East Haven Mayor Joseph Maturo said in a written statement late Friday.
Federal authorities spent nearly two years investigating allegations of civil rights abuse by East Haven police officers before arresting the four officers last spring.
The investigation was prompted by a video recording of an encounter between some of the officers and the Rev. James Manship, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven. The federal probe found a pattern of discrimination by police, especially against Latino residents.
The indictment charges that the officers became known "Miller's boys," because he was the sergeant in charge of the midnight shift during which most of the incidents allegedly occurred.
The indictment charges that officers conspired to create and perpetuate an environment in which the use of unreasonable force and illegal searches and seizures was tolerated and encouraged. They used their status and authority as police officers to advance that conspiracy, to file false and misleading reports to cover up their illegal conduct, and sought to create an environment in the police department that not only tolerated but encouraged such illegal conduct, the indictment says.
Further, the officers conspired to harass, ostracize and intimidate victims, fellow officers who reported misconduct, East Haven Police Commission members who sought to investigate the misconduct, and others who sought to hold the officers accountable, according to the affidavit.
Each officer was charged with conspiracy against rights, which carries a penalty of 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines. Miller, along with Spaulding and Zullo, was also charged with use of unreasonable force by a law enforcement officer, which also carries a 10-year sentence and a fine of up to $250,000.
Spaulding is charged with two counts and Cari with one count of deprivation of rights for making arrests without probable cause. Each is punishable by a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.
Spaulding is also charged with two counts of obstruction of a federal investigation, and Cari with one count, for allegedly preparing false reports to justify false arrests. Each count carries a penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The 10-count indictment, handed up by a federal grand jury in Bridgeport, refers to unidentified co-conspirators who aided what the indictment describes as a long-term campaign to harass East Haven's Latino community and those who stood up to the four officers.
The indictment provides an example of a chat between Zullo and Spaulding on computer terminals in their patrol cars on May 1, 2008. Zullo wrote that he "likes harassing motorist[s]" and then referred to "persons who have drifted to this country on rafts made of chicken wings and are now residing on [Main] St. East Haven."
The indictment also cites the actions of "co-conspirator-1," described in the indictment as a leader in the East Haven Police Department, who protected Miller and the others. The co-conspirator also worked to undermine the effectiveness of the police commission, which sought to investigate Miller, by banning its members from police headquarters.
Police Commission Chairman Frederick Brow said it was Police Chief Leonard Gallo who, on his first day back from a forced administrative leave, ordered commission members barred from police headquarters. Gallo also banned commission members from the building's parking lot, although the commission days later convened a special meeting and approved a policy allowing commissioners into police headquarters. Gallo has declined to comment.
Gallo's lawyer, Jonathan J. Einhorn of New Haven, has said, "It's obvious that the reference to co-conspirator No. 1 is a reference to Chief Gallo. It's unfair, however, in that he's not charged with a crime, and yet he's referred to in a criminal indictment. This is a law enforcement officer who denies vigorously any wrongdoing whatsoever that may be attributed to him either implicitly or explicitly."
The indictment refers to two more unindicted co-conspirators as "Union-Leader-1" and "Union-Leader-2," who it says interfered with and intimidated those who sought to investigate Miller and the others.
Former East Haven Mayor April Capone Almon placed Gallo on administrative leave in April 2010 after the investigation was announced. Shortly after he retook the mayor's office in November, Maturo reinstated Gallo.
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