Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Yet Another Connecticut Trigger Happy Cop?


Jury Gets Another View Of Shooting

Murtha Testifies, Shows Animated Re-Enactment
October 17, 2006
By MATT BURGARD, Hartford Courant Staff Writer
It was a bitterly cold and dark Super Bowl Sunday evening when Hartford police Officer Robert Murtha charged out of his cruiser to confront a suspected car thief who had just driven into a snowbank.

From the witness stand at Superior Court in Hartford on Monday, Murtha tried to show jurors that the decisions he made that night more than 3½ years ago - and the contradictory explanations he later gave investigators - could be understood only if they could see the incident as it unfolded before his eyes.

With that in mind, and over the objections of the prosecution, jurors were allowed to see a computerized animation - produced by the defense team - showing Murtha as the car's headlights shone in his eyes.

As the computerized version of Murtha opened fire on the driver, the real Murtha, 36, testified that he had expected the driver of the car, Elvin Gonzalez, to open the door and try to run away after a brief car chase in January 2003.

Instead, Murtha said, he was surprised when the car, its wheels loudly whining and churning, suddenly lurched out of the snowbank and back onto the road. The glare from the lights on his police cruiser, as well as the tinted windows on Gonzalez's car, prevented Murtha from seeing if Gonzalez was armed, he said.

At that moment, he said, he saw the car's headlights moving directly toward him, prompting him to fire his gun three times at the driver. Gonzalez, who eventually recovered after being struck twice in the arm, testified earlier in the trial that he was trying to elude police because he was wanted on an outstanding arrest warrant, and had been drinking and smoking marijuana that night.

"I was in fear for my life," said Murtha, whose fate is expected to be handed over to jurors after they hear closing arguments from lawyers on both sides today. Murtha, 36, was fired from the force after the Jan. 26, 2003, shooting, but he has since earned his law degree and is now a practicing lawyer. He is facing charges of first-degree assault and fabricating evidence.

The animated graphic presented Monday was produced as a response to a videotape of the actual shooting, taken from a camera mounted in another responding police cruiser. That video shows Gonzalez trying to drive past Murtha as the officer opens fire into the driver's side window, which prosecutors claim as proof that Murtha was not in danger and did not need to fire.

Wearing a neatly pressed blue blazer and a gold patterned tie, Murtha insisted he was justified in shooting at the car despite the video, which he said does not show the threat the car represented to him.

Murtha also struggled to explain to jurors why he initially told police dispatchers that he was unharmed in the incident, then told police investigators that he fired because the car had struck him in the knee and spun him around.

Although the video clearly shows that the car did not strike him, Murtha said the stress of the confrontation falsely convinced him that the car had caused the abrasions to his knee, which apparently were caused when he fell to the pavement after firing at the car.

It wasn't until the next day, when Murtha saw the video, that he realized he was wrong about being struck by the car, he testified.

"I absolutely thought the car hit me and to this day, if I didn't see the video, I'd still believe it," he said. "I know the car did not hit me, but in my mind, at that moment, I thought it did."

Murtha made many of his comments as jurors were shown the animated graphic, which was spliced into a copy of the video taken from the police cruiser.

Despite the objections of the prosecutor, Hartford State's Attorney James Thomas, the jurors were allowed to see the animation show the perspective shift from the responding cruiser to Murtha as he walked toward the car. As the perspective shifted overhead, the jury saw the computerized image of Murtha raise his gun as the car dislodged from the snowbank and briefly steered back onto the road.

As the graphic was shown, Murtha said that, at that moment, he felt the car was heading toward him.

In the split second in which this took place, he said, he had committed himself to firing at the driver because of the perceived threat. Once the car turned back toward the driving lane, he could not change his decision, which is why the shots were fired into the driver's side window, he said.

Before the graphic was presented to the jury, Thomas objected to Judge Christine Keller that it could not be viewed as an accurate depiction of the shooting and might have too much influence on the jurors. But Keller cited a growing number of cases in which such computerized reproductions have been admitted into evidence.

Later, when cross-examining Murtha, Thomas asked him why he continued to move toward the car even as it emerged from the snowbank. If he was in fear for his life, Thomas said, Murtha would more likely have backpedaled to his cruiser to protect himself.

Murtha again said the video, which shows him moving closer to the car, did not jibe with his recollection.

"I had the sensation I was moving for cover, but I never did," he said.

Contact Matt Burgard at mburgard@courant.com

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