A Look at the East Haven Civil Rights Trial

Oct 4, 2013

East Haven police officer Dennis Spaulding and his wife leave court in late September in Hartford.
Credit Melanie Stengel / The New Haven Register

WNPR News talked with Evan Lips, a reporter for The New Haven Register who has been covering the trial in East Haven of two police officers accused of violating the civil rights of several Latinos during arrests. The officers are David Cari and Dennis Spaulding, who were charged with conspiracy to violate civil rights. Spaulding was also charged with excessive force. Lips shared his observations about the early stages of the trial.

WNPR News: Who's on trial, and for what?

Evan Lips: Two East Haven police officers are on trial. One of them is David Cari and the other is Dennis Spaulding. These two officers are accused of violating the civil rights of several Latinos during the process of arrests and day-to-day police work. They've been charged with several things, the chief of which is conspiracy to violate civil rights. Spaulding is facing an additional [charge of] excessive force.

"This is a case where you have officers who said they're enforcing the full letter of the law." Evan Lips

What have you heard in court so far?

The government brought in a lot of witnesses from the Hispanic community in East Haven. We heard from an immigration attorney. She works in conjunction with the church, St. Rose of Lima Parish. Her name is Sister Mary Ellen Burns. We heard from a man named Moises Marin, who owns the La Bamba restaurant in East Haven. He charged that Officer Spaulding hurt him during the arrest. 

What jumps out at you as some of the most compelling testimony you've heard?

I feel like the most compelling testimony we've heard in this case so far involved another officer, who happened to be working the same night as four Latino men were arrested outside La Bamba. One of the men charged that he was hit by police inside the station after he was booked, and that his sweater got ripped off of him while he was in the cell, by another officer.

The officer who testified, his name is Anthony Rybaruk, he's now a sergeant. He was an officer in 2009 at the time, and he had to pause a lot of times to compose himself. At one point, it seemed like he was near tears. I remember asking another person in the row of observers, "Did it look like he was crying to you?" and the woman said, "Yes." The prosecutors had him relax a few times, and then he went through with his testimony. He provided some very emotional testimony about what he saw that night, and what he heard, that happened in the department.

The defense attorneys, from what I've read of your accounts, have been going after the credibility of witnesses. Can you talk about that?

A lot of the cross-examination has dealt with the defense attorneys for Spaulding and Cari questioning the truthfulness of these victims who have come forward. Some of the questions they will have for these guys, it's, "How did you get here from Ecuador? Is it true that you entered the country three times illegally? Why wasn't this mentioned during the grand jury?" That sort of questioning. It just appears to me that the motive there is just to create some doubt among the jurors as to whether these people are credible.

What kind of penalties do the officers potentially face?

A maximum of 20 years if convicted on all charges.

Can you talk about the makeup of the jury?

It's not exactly a diverse jury. There's one minority there. There aren't very many young jurors. The bulk of them... so there are 12 jurors. I believe I've seen one alternate. Older white men and women, mostly, in the jury pool.

How long is the trial expected to last?

They tell me between four and five weeks. Right now we're in our ninth day.

There are also questions about reports that were submitted by the police officers, and whether they were accurate or not. Has that come up?

Yes, that has come up. The witnesses who have been arrested have testified that there are frequently inaccuracies in the arrest reports concerning what they might have been doing at the time. For instance, they will say, Officer Spaulding wrote in several reports that "these arrestees had been yelling obscenities," or "were combative," or "resisted." This has been highly questioned by prosecutors, whether this actually happened. Witnesses they brought forward have contested the bulk of what appeared in these reports.

Why do you think this is an important case?

There's always a question about whether someone is here illegally, whether they're breaking the laws, whether they're being a criminal. This is a case where you have officers who said they're enforcing the full letter of the law. They are patrolling the streets, and they're stopping cars that appear to have fraudulent plates, or something's not right, and upon checking them out, they may appear to be here without papers, without document.

The question here: is that an arrestable offense? Is that a crime? Are these officers breaking the law when they arrest these people, or are they just following their duties? That is a very compelling question. A lot of people are divided on this. If you're here from another country without your papers, some feel you're breaking the law; you should be sent right back. Other people will ask questions: how did your ancestors get here? They might not have had the proper paperwork, but they stuck around and got jobs, and here we are in America, so, what's the question here, I guess is what we're asking.

Editor's note:

In response, Angel Fernandez Chavero, lay leader of the pastoral council of St. Rose of Lima Church in New Haven, said the question of immigration status should not be central to the case.

"The real issue," he said, "is whether everybody deserves equal protection and equal process under the law.  These officers are being prosecuted in part because they beat people. Is that right? It's not. These officers are being prosecuted because they harassed people specifically for their ethnicity. They were racially profiled. Is that right? It's not. This case should have nothing to do with the fact that some of the folks happen to be undocumented."