A federal jury on Tuesday acquitted a Camden County Police officer of filing a false report, but could not reach a verdict on allegations that he punched an unarmed suspect during an incident caught on video.
The jury returned the split verdict after deliberating for nearly 10 hours over three days in the trial of Nicholas Romantino, who was charged with using excessive force by assaulting the suspect and trying to cover up the alleged beating.
Romantino, 26, of Egg Harbor Township, showed little emotion when the verdict was announced by the foreman. His attorney patted him on the back, and family members exhaled and wept.
A day earlier, the jury said it was deadlocked, but U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler in Camden instructed the panel to deliberate a little longer Monday afternoon. The panel returned Tuesday morning and deliberated for several hours.
The jury said that it had reached a decision on the lesser charge of filing a false report, but was hopelessly deadlocked on the charge that Romantino violated the civil rights of Edward Minguela on a Camden street on Feb. 22, 2018.
Kugler declared a mistrial after polling the jury members one by one, and all unanimously agreed that further deliberations would not result in a verdict on the second count.
”I don’t think any further efforts of deliberation would result in a verdict,” Kugler said from the bench. “I see no alternative but to declare a mistrial.”
Kugler gave prosecutors a week to decide whether to retry Romantino on the civil rights charge. A status conference was scheduled for June 19.
In a statement, Dan Keashen, a spokesperson for Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, said the department “respects the decision of the jury and the court.” The department plans to conduct an internal investigation and Romantino will remain suspended without pay, he said.
Shortly after the incident, the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office declined to press any charges against Romantino, saying the video showed Minguela pulling his arms away from the officer during the arrest. The U.S. Attorney’s Office launched its own investigation and Romantino was indicted in November 2018.
Romantino, a two-year veteran of the force who is free on bail, declined comment after the verdict. His attorney and prosecutors also declined comment.
A key part of the case was a black-and-white video that appeared to show Romantino pushing Minguela, 32, to the ground and punching him in the back of the head about a dozen times. The beating was recorded by a store’s surveillance camera and has been viewed thousands of times on social media.
An expert on the use of excessive force called by the defense said Romantino acted appropriately, given the dispatcher’s report of a “man with a gun.” Minguela matched the description of the suspect. A gun was not found, but jurors were not allowed to hear that under a ruling by the judge.
Neither Romantino nor Minguela testified during the trial. Minguela faces charges of resisting arrest and obstruction. Minguela’s lawyer has called for those charges to be dropped.
The incident occurred after Romantino responded to the area of Collings and New Hampshire Roads in Camden’s Fairview section along with two other officers. Minguela complied when an officer ordered him to stop and put his hands up, the indictment said. Romantino approached Minguela from behind and tried to pull his arm behind his back, which startled Minguela, the indictment said. He reacted by pulling his arm away from Romantino, and the officer then threw Minguela to the ground.
Romantino rolled Minguela onto his stomach, and another officer grabbed Minguela’s legs while a second officer grabbed his right arm, according to the indictment. Romantino grabbed Minguela’s left hand.
“Romantino, without provocation, punched the victim multiple times in the back of his head," according to documents in the case.
Back at the Camden County police station, Romantino allegedly submitted a fraudulent report seeking to justify actions against Minguela, the indictment said.
Thomson, the police chief, said at the time that he was disturbed by the video of the incident. The department, which operates only in Camden City, said the incident was not consistent with training, policy, and standards.