A hung jury forced the judge to declare a mistrial in the case of a California police officer who permanently blinded a woman with pepper spray while arresting her for a traffic violation. The former cop was charged with excessive force.
After four days of deliberation, the jury deadlocked at 10-2 in favor of conviction on Tuesday morning, causing Riverside County Superior Court Judge Mac Fisher to end the proceedings. The District Attorney’s Office already said it intends to retry the case. In the original trial, Enoch “Jeremy” Clark faced up to 20 years in prison for assault by a peace officer causing injury, assault with a less lethal weapon, battery causing serious injury and assault resulting in great bodily injury after the February 2012 incident. If convicted in a new trial, he would only face seven years in prison, CBS Los Angeles reported.
Clark attempted to arrest 34-year-old Monique Hernandez on suspicion of drunken driving as she pulled away from her home in Beaumont, Calif. According to Clark, Hernandez resisted arrest, so he used his department-issued JPX gunpowder-propelled pepper spray weapon on her. The propellant was less than a foot away from her face.
The blast of pepper spray gel sliced her right eye in half, fractured her right orbital bone and severed the optic nerve in her left eye, the Press-Enterprise reported. The prosecutor in the case described the stream as “literally blowing [her eyes] to pieces and entering her head,” according to City News Service.
A dashboard camera recording of the incident was used at the trial, showing Hernandez with her hands behind her back, moving around as Clark attempts to cuff her. He repeatedly tells her to stop resisting, but she insists she’s not resisting and demands to know why she’s being taken into custody, according to Raw Story.
“Every single day, she goes to bed at night, dreaming of a time when she used to be able to see,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Carney said, according to the Press-Enterprise. “When Monique Hernandez wakes up, the world is still dark because her sight was violently taken from here. Her eyeballs were literally blown into pieces, and the person who did this was a police officer.”
Steve Sanchez, Clark’s attorney, said that the Beaumont Police Department did not properly train officers on how to use the less-than-lethal weapons because they were “too cheap” to purchase practice cartridges. Though police officers were told not to fire the guns less than 5 feet away, Sanchez said they didn’t know how the guns worked and had never fired them. He also argued that the manufacturer’s warnings were confusing and contained errors. He pointed to errors in the instruction manual, including a misplaced comma that suggested the JPX could be safely fired from one meter – or three feet – away, instead of 1.5 meters, City News Service reported.
In his closing arguments, Sanchez argued that Clark’s decision to fire the pepper spray gun was “made in a split second, and you can’t second-guess the officer.’’ He said Clark was anxious because he wondered whether he might be attacked by any of Hernandez’s half-dozen family members who were watching.
“When you’re in a situation with a suspect who’s resisting, you’re focused on controlling that suspect and getting that person into custody,’’ Sanchez said. “If suspects know you're afraid, they have the advantage.”
In his own closing arguments, the prosecutor vehemently disagreed with that assessment, calling Clark’s reasoning “bullshit” and saying that the officer was “lazy, annoyed and careless.”
“She has her hands behind her back. Yes, she’s mouthy and drunk, but there is no way to justify his response,’’ Carney said. “When officers act like this, we can’t give them a pass. We can’t put a stamp of approval on what he did. Hold him accountable for robbing Monique of her sight.’’
“Any option was better than what he did,’’ Carney said. “It was a battle of egos. She was drunk and acting like a jerk; he was way too stern and getting annoyed at her behavior. Then he goes from 0 to 60. He goes from a little bit of effort to inflicting a brutal injury.’’
Clark and the city of Beaumont are being sued in federal court for alleged civil rights violations leading to Hernandez’s permanent injury. Clark, who was chairman of the local police union, was initially placed on administrative leave, and then quietly fired by the department, online blog Pro Libertate reported.
A trial readiness conference for a new trial was set for July 24, the Press-Enterprise reported.