A federal jury on Friday told a judge it “will not reach a unanimous verdict” in the retrial of a Camden County Police officer accused of punching an unarmed suspect a dozen times during an arrest captured on video.
U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler asked the jury to deliberate a little longer and “make every reasonable effort” to reach a verdict. The jury had deliberated for about three hours before sending a note to the judge.
Nicholas Romantino, 26, of Egg Harbor Township, is charged with civil rights violations by using excessive force. He could face 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.
”It’s too early to declare a deadlocked jury,” Kugler said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richardson agreed. Defense attorney Daniel E. Rybeck said: “I have a sense of deja vu,” referring to Romantino‘s first trial, which ended with a mixed verdict and a mistrial.
After the jury left the courtroom, Kugler commented: “What a fine mess!”
”It’s Friday the 13th,” a prosecutor reminded the judge in a moment of levity.
”Oh yes,” Kugler responded, raising a clenched fist.
Said another court observer: “It’s also a full moon.”
Around 7 p.m., the jury sent word that it wanted to wrap up deliberations after about six and a half hours Friday and resume on Monday. Kugler went into the jury room to dismiss the panel for the weekend.
Kugler quickly returned to the courtroom to inform the lawyers that there was another wrinkle. Juror 12 said she needed to return to her management position in Cleveland with Amazon. With permission from both sides, the judge excused the juror.
”We should have known better,” Kugler said, referring to the trial’s latest challenge.
The judge told the remaining jurors that they must start their deliberations on Monday from the beginning. Juror 13 was added to the panel.
During closing arguments Friday morning, the jury listened intently as both sides presented different viewpoints: one of a rogue officer who disregarded his training and one of an officer who took necessary action in a potentially deadly encounter with a suspect. Romantino, a two-year police veteran, sat stoically at the defense table.
The incident happened after Romantino responded to a 911 call in the area of Collings and New Hampshire Roads in Camden’s Fairview section along with two other officers on Feb. 22, 2018. The dispatcher’s report said there was a man with a gun.
Authorities say Edward Minguela had complied with an order to put up his hands when Romantino approached Minguela from behind and tried to pull his arm back, startling Minguela. He reacted by pulling away his arm, and Romantino threw Minguela to the ground, authorities said.
Richardson alleged that Romantino then “brutally beat” Minguela and later laughed about it with other officers. Minguela, 33, was punched a dozen times during the incident, which lasted 19 seconds, he said.
”He betrayed his badge. He used unreasonable and excessive force,” Richardson told the jury.
The beating was recorded by a Camden liquor store’s surveillance camera and went viral, viewed thousands of times on social media. The black-and-white video was shown during the trial, which began Monday.
The trial is the second for Romantino before Kugler. In June, another jury returned a mixed verdict, acquitting Romantino of filing a false report, but was unable to reach a verdict on the civil rights charge.
Romantino waited in an attorney conference room while the jury considered his fate. His father, Marc, a retired Egg Harbor Township police officer, nervously paced the hallway for hours.
Rybeck, the defense attorney, told the jury that Romantino had to make “a split-second decision” in a high-crime area. A defense expert on excessive force testified during the trial that Romantino used standard police procedures and acted appropriately given the possibility that Minguela had a gun.
”This was a life-and-death situation,” Rybeck said. “This is not Haddonfield. This is Camden City, one of the most dangerous cities.”
A key part of the case will likely be the video, which appeared to show Romantino pushing Minguela to the ground and punching him in the back of the head. But the two sides disagree on what the footage showed.
Also in dispute are words allegedly uttered by Minguela while on the ground. Richardson said Minguela told Romantino to “stop choking me.” But Rybeck said Minguela told the officer to “stop touching me.”
Minguela matched the dispatcher’s description of a suspect. A gun was not found.
After Minguela was thrown to the ground, authorities said Romantino rolled Minguela onto his stomach, and another officer grabbed Minguela’s legs while a third officer grabbed his right arm. Romantino grabbed Minguela’s left hand, authorities said, and then began punching him.
Unlike Romantino’s first trial, Minguela testified against him this time. He told the jury that during the beating he used his left hand to protect his face from the blows.
Minguela also admitted that he had consumed alcohol on the night of the incident. He also conceded making exaggerations in an internal affairs report he filed with police after the incident.
Rybeck told the jury that Minguela was “flat-out lying” and urged the panel to disregard his testimony. The prosecutor also noted the exaggerations, but said Minguela complied with police orders.
Minguela was charged with resisting arrest and obstruction. Minguela’s lawyer has called for those charges to be dropped. Minguela was treated for a broken wrist, bruising, and a concussion.
Then-county Police Chief Scott Thomson, said at the time that he was disturbed by the video of the incident and Romantino was suspended without pay. The department, which operates only in Camden City, said the incident was not consistent with training, policy, and standards.
The department plans to conduct an internal investigation after the trial is completed. Romantino remains free on bond.
Shortly after the incident, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office declined to press charges against Romantino, saying the conduct did not violate the attorney general’s policy on use of force.