A federal jury in Camden on Monday acquitted a suspended Camden County police officer in the beating of an innocent man who he erroneously thought was a gunman.
Nicholas Romantino, of Egg Harbor Township, Atlantic County, who had been on the force two years, could have faced up to 10 years in prison if he had been convicted of using excessive force against Edward Minguela in the Feb. 22, 2018, case.
A video showed him pulling the unarmed man to the ground, pouncing on him, and repeatedly punching him in the back of the head.
Despite his acquittal, Romantino’s status as a police officer remained unclear. He has been suspended without pay since shortly after the events, in which he and other officers encountered Minguela while looking for a man with a gun. They said Minguela, 34, matched the gunman’s description but later determined he was not the suspect.
“We respect the jury and the court’s decision in the matter,” said Dan Keashen, spokesperson for the Camden County Metro Police Department. “Based on this decision, our agency will begin our own internal affairs investigation. Romantino remains suspended without pay since February 2018."
Daniel Rybeck, Romantino’s lawyer, said his client had previously been notified that the department intends to terminate him.
“I’m elated that my client was vindicated by a jury of his peers,” Rybeck said Monday. The jury began deliberating Friday, worked for eight hours, then resumed Monday for an hour before reaching its not-guilty verdict, he said.
The blows by his client against Minguela were warranted under the circumstances, Rybeck said. “It was a call for a man with a gun, [Minguela and a man with him] matched the description and three times he pulled his arms away. … Under those circumstances, he could have been going for a gun and my client was justified in using force. As soon as he stopped resisting, he stopped punching him,” Rybeck said.
Minguela was charged with resisting arrest and obstruction of justice, charges he still faces. His civil lawyer, Devon Jacob, said that despite the jury verdict, he is suing Romantino, 26, and Officers Brandon Gallagher and Anthony Agus, who helped pin Minguela to the ground.
“It took two criminal trials, two juries, and protracted jury deliberations to determine that the prosecution failed to meet the very high burden of proof required to convict … Romantino, of violating federal criminal law, when he punched Edward Minguela 12 times while Minguela was restrained on his stomach,” Jacob said.
“Mr. Minguela and I thank everyone who participated in both criminal trials for their community service and we respect the jury’s decision. The jury’s decision, however, that the evidence did not reach the level of proof required to convict — ‘proof beyond a reasonable doubt’ — is not relevant to the civil rights claims that will now be filed,” Jacob said.
“This is because the burden of proof required to hold someone civilly liable — ‘a preponderance of the evidence’ — is much lower and virtually identical to the burden of proof required to return a criminal indictment.”
A federal jury in June acquitted Romantino of filing a false report related to the case but could not reach a verdict on the excessive force charge, resulting in a mistrial on that count.
Camden County Prosecutor Mary Eva Colalillo investigated and concluded that the officers acted in accordance with the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy, and as a result did not file criminal charges against any of the officers involved.
The case unfolded after Camden County officers were dispatched to Collings and New Hampshire Roads in Camden’s Fairview section in response to a 911 call for a man with a gun. Upon arrival, the officers saw two men who matched the descriptions given by the caller. Minguela fit the description of the man with the gun, police said.
The video from the Fairview Liquor Store showed officers approaching Minguela with their guns drawn. Romantino holstered his weapon and tried to bring Minguela’s left arm behind his back to be handcuffed. Minguela appeared to stiffen his arms, which he held above his head, and the officer then grabbed him from behind and took him to the ground.