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Second Circuit Reinstates New York Jail Guard’s Excessive Force Conviction

by Matt Clarke

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the federal conviction of a New York jail guard for intentionally using excessive force on a prisoner in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242.
Zoran Teodorovic, a pre-trial detainee at the Westchester County Jail, was housed in a special section of the facility for prisoners with mental problems. After Teodorovic refused to clean up his unkempt cell, Sgt. John Mark Reimer ordered him out of the cell and had a trusty clean it. When Reimer ordered Teodorovic back into the cell, Teodorovic refused to go, saying, “No, no, TV.” Reimer approached Teodorovic to lead him into the cell and Teodorovic threw up his hands, hitting Reimer.

Reimer grabbed Teodorovic in a bear hug and took him down to the floor. While Reimer was on top of Teodorovic and restraining him, guard Paul Cote came into the cell block, approached them and began hitting, kicking and stomping Teodorovic while screaming obscenities and exclamations to never hit a guard. Reimer told Cote to stop but was ignored. Teodorovic lost consciousness; he remained in a coma until he died fourteen months later.

Cote asked Reimer to help him cover-up the beating. Reimer initially went along with the cover-up, but changed his mind when he discovered that Teodorovic was brain dead. Before Teodorovic died, Cote was indicted for intentional assault by a state grand jury. The state court convicted him of the lesser-included charge of reckless assault and he was sentenced to three months incarceration. He served two months.

When Cote’s attorney discovered the federal government was also considering charging Cote, he asked to discuss the prosecution with various federal officials. This was allowed, but the lengthy discussion process exceeded the statute of limitations on the potential charges. Therefore, Cote’s attorney signed a waiver of the statute of limitations in exchange for assurances that the government would not charge Cote with causing Teodorovic’s death, possibly making him eligible for the death penalty.

At trial, the prosecution offered the testimony of Reimer and three prisoners who were eyewitnesses to the beating, as well as expert medical testimony. The evidence showed that Teodorovic suffered severe deep skull fractures and many other serious injuries which could not have been caused by a single blow. Cote’s defense was that the most serious, fatal injuries occurred during the initial takedown. The judge did not allow the jury to hear evidence that Teodorovic had died, because “it does set kind of an inappropriate and a shocking tone for a case that really does not involve a charge of homicide and a statute which really does not require significant bodily injury to be violated....” Nonetheless, the federal jury convicted Cote.

Cote filed a motion for judgment of acquittal and for a new trial. The district court found the waiver of the statute of limitations invalid; discounted all of the eyewitnesses; called the prisoners unreliable because they were felons and vindictive because they didn’t agree on the number of hits, kicks and stomps; and described Reimer’s testimony as suspect because it was self-serving. The judge also stated that the testimony did not comport to the physical appearance of Teodorovic’s injuries in photographs, and the state jury’s prior failure to find intentional injury should be considered correct, precluding a conviction on the federal charges. For essentially the same reasons, the judge alternatively granted Cote’s motion for new trial. The government appealed.

The Second Circuit held that the district court judge had abused his discretion when he found the statute of limitations waiver invalid, substituted his credibility assessment for that of the jury, incorrectly took the state trial results into account in a federal prosecution, and substituted his lay opinion on the photographic evidence of the injuries for that of the government’s expert medical witnesses.

The Second Circuit also denied Cote’s cross appeal, which claimed his federal and state prosecutions constituted double jeopardy. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed both the judgment of acquittal and grant of a new trial, and returned the case to the district court for sentencing. See: United States. v. Cote, 544 F.3d 88 (2d Cir. 2008).

Following remand, Cote was sentenced on June 1, 2009 to 72 months in prison and two years supervised release. His motion to set aside the sentence was denied.

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Related legal case

United States. v. Cote