Washtenaw County Sheriff's deputy finds vindication
in jury's acquittal on federal charges
by Art Aisner | The Ann Arbor News
November 20, 2008, 8:22 AM
DETROIT - For more
than two years, suspended Washtenaw County Sheriff's Deputy Joseph Eberle held that he was not responsible for the death
of Clifton "Pete" Lee Jr. during a struggle with police.
On Wednesday, a federal jury agreed, acquitting Eberle of depriving Lee his civil
rights after roughly 12 hours of deliberations. It was a moment of vindication for the 35-year-old Eberle; and of frustration
for members of the Lee family who left the courthouse in Detroit shaking their heads.
member of the sheriff's department, Eberle was one of three deputies charged after Lee died of asphyxiation at the bottom
of a pile of police officers in the early morning hours of June 1, 2006, in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood.
The other two deputies are scheduled to go to trial in December.
The confrontation began
with a traffic stop involving Lee's nephew and ended with a chaotic struggle, much of which was caught on patrol car videotapes
that were key evidence in the trial.
"I just always
had faith that the jury would come back with a not-guilty verdict and that's what they did," Eberle said his face
still flush from tears and excitement as he and his supporters left the federal courthouse in downtown Detroit.
Many of the U.S. Marshals and courthouse security officers shook 35-year-old Eberle's
hand and slapped him on the back as he made his way from the court.
Moments earlier, the seven women and five men who comprised the jury, one by one, told U.S. District Judge Sean Cox
that Eberle was not guilty of using unreasonable force despite seeing him punch, kick and kneel on Lee's upper back and
neck in the patrol car video recordings of the incident.
they confirmed their decision, Eberle turned to his wife, Shawn, who sobbed as they embraced.
It was the only visible emotion in the courtroom following orders from Cox who warned
that anyone who uttered a sound or physically reacted once the verdict was read would be taken into custody.
Cox then asked the jurors to return to the jury room so he or the attorneys could speak with them. Jurors were not available
Members of the Lee family were visibly upset
as they left the courthouse, though few could verbalize their feelings.
"This is a miscarriage of justice, but we have to abide by the ruling of the jury, as sad as it is," said
Douglas Barden Sr., Lee's uncle.
settled a civil suit with Lee's heirs for $4 million in February and another lawsuit is pending.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Cares declined comment outside the courtroom and indicated
the U.S. Attorney's office would issue a press release. The News did not receive one Wednesday.
Cares said throughout the trial that the video spoke for itself. During closing arguments
he urged jurors to use common sense in judging Eberle's actions. Ironically, Eberle's defense team did the same.
But defense lawyers emphasized how testimony from expert witnesses explained in detail the reasons for what jurors saw on
"Explaining to lay people that there were
proper procedures the deputies followed was essential," said Lenore Ferber, one of Eberle's attorneys. "They're
going at a goal (to get compliance), but how they get there doesn't always look good and is not always video-camera friendly."
Earlier Wednesday, jurors asked to see the police training manuals
that Convertino provided as evidence. They also requested photos depicting the techniques and a transcript of Washtenaw County
Medical Examiner Bader Cassin's testimony during a full day of deliberations Tuesday.
Cassin reviewed the video recordings to help determine Lee died of asphyxia. He told jurors
he could not single out a deputy for causing Lee's death although the 45-year-old man's chest was compressed and his
airway blocked during the struggle.
Convertino said the
verdict should send a strong message to those who reached a judgment based on accounts of the video. "The message is
to not view these situations with 20/20 hindsight," he said. "The jury had to get into the skin of Joe Eberle and
the other officers that night, and they did."
Eberle and Convertino discussed the suspended deputy's return to the road patrol, an internal department investigation
is still pending. Outgoing Sheriff Dan Minzey could not be reached for comment.
It's also unclear whether the Washtenaw County prosecutor could pursue criminal charges under
For one day, however, the Eberles said their
prayers were answered, and thanked the friends, family and fellow deputies.
"The support, especially the phone calls and e-mails from people who believe in you and tell you to keep fighting,
gives you strength," he said.