CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A federal judge has acquitted a West Virginia State Police trooper in the beating of a teenager.
U.S. District Judge Gina Groh dismissed the case against former Trooper Michael Kennedy with prejudice in an order filed Monday.
“Upon careful consideration, the Court finds the Government has not met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Groh wrote in the 34 page order filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.
The trooper’s confrontation happened in the early morning hours of Nov. 19, 2018, when officers were responding to a call at a bar called Jack Rabbit’s in Martinsburg. Kennedy was acting under the authority of the West Virginia State Police.
A 16-year-old — identified in court documents only as “J.H.” — crashed into a parked sheriff’s cruiser, fled, lost control and crashed into a utility pole.
The officers pulled the 5-foot-8, 140-pound juvenile suspect out of the wrecked car.
All accounts said the juvenile then tensed up and tucked his hands underneath his body, making it hard to handcuff him. Then, both sides agreed, the officers used some acceptable forms of force, such as closed-hand strikes, to subdue the suspect.
But Kennedy was accused of kicking him while he was being handcuffed, dropping him in a snowbank and slapping him.
A federal indictment was filed against Kennedy last March.
Kennedy later testified in his own defense and described an intense, chaotic scene where the young man repeatedly resisted arrest and, possibly, intentionally tripped another of the arresting officers.
Judge Groh considered the evidence and agreed.
“The Defendant was presented with a suspect who put officers and others in harm by leading them on a highspeed chase,” she wrote.
“J.H. would not listen to verbal commands and continued to tense up and move his hands when Trooper Walker was trying to handcuff him. Even after being handcuffed, J.H. continued to ignore verbal commands.”
Judge Groh ruled the evidence was inconclusive that Kennedy’s actions had caused the teen’s injuries, rather than the crash or being pulled from the vehicle.
“The Government did not prove to the Court said injuries were exacerbated at all during the struggle, much less by the Defendant’s use of force,” Groh wrote.
The judge concluded that the trooper’s first use of force, when he kicked the teen and placed his foot on his buttocks to hold him down, was reasonable under the circumstances.
“J.H. had just rear-ended Deputy Merson’s patrol car, fled the scene and then led the officers on an inherently dangerous high-speed chase, traveling over 90 miles an hour,” she wrote.
“The officers were using verbal commands to gain compliance, but the commands were ineffective and J.H. would not give up his hands or stop tensing up.”
A second use of force — several closed-hand strikes to the teen’s upper back — came as officers were trying to apply handcuffs.
“Because J.H. continued to resist being handcuffed and did not respond to verbal commands, the Court finds the strikes assisted Trooper Walker in gaining enough control to secure J.H.’s hands in the handcuffs,” the judge wrote.
The third use of force came when Kennedy picked up the teen, carried him to another location and dropped him on the ground.
Kennedy testified that he was trying to get the teen away from injured officers and admitted to dropping him harder than he had intended. The force of the drop gave the judge pause, she wrote.
But: “While in hindsight the Defendant may have used more force than was necessary to create space between himself and J.H. and place J.H. on the ground, especially taking into consideration that J.H. was handcuffed behind his back, the Defendant’s force was
not unreasonable based on the facts and circumstances presented.”
The final use of force came after the teen had been carried toward the road to await an ambulance. The teen continued trying to raise his torso off the ground. Kennedy pulled him close, told him to stop and slapped him twice across the face with his left, nondominant hand.
“The Court does not find the Defendant’s light open-hand slaps to the uninjured side of J.H.’s face were objectively unreasonable,” Groh wrote.
Kennedy’s actions, caught on dashcam video, drew scrutiny across the state, including from Gov. Jim Justice. “And in all honesty you had way beyond necessary force,” Justice said about this time last year. “You had beating of a kid.”
A bench trial, which means there was no jury, was conducted in October.
In her order, the judge prominently mentioned the intense media coverage of the case as well as the public release of the dashcam video of what unfolded that night.
“Presumably, this case, along with the reputations of the juvenile and all law enforcement officers shown on the video, has already been tried on the media stage by public opinion based upon the released video and statements of people who were not present at the scene of the alleged offense,” Judge Groh wrote, describing why a jury could have been biased.