The alleged crimes - two uniformed Philadelphia cops beating a man and busting his jaw, tossing him from their cruiser and covering the whole thing up - happened nearly four years ago.
After the clash between former officers Sheldon Fitzgerald and Howard Hill and graffiti vandal David Vernitsky, the officers were fired, two judges dismissed charges against them and the state Superior Court ordered the charges reinstated.
Yesterday, Fitzgerald, 33, and Hill, 33, finally sat in a Common Pleas courtroom as defendants on trial on charges of aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy and related offenses. Both pleaded not guilty before Judge James Murray Lynn, in a courtroom packed with police officers.
The jury heard divergent versions of what happened about 12:30 a.m. Aug. 26, 2007, near 4th Street and Wyoming Avenue, in the Feltonville section of North Philadelphia.
Assistant District Attorney Meriah Russell said that yes, Vernitsky, now 40, had drunk alcohol and smoked pot hours earlier. But even though Vernitsky has a criminal record and fled when Fitzgerald and Hill spotted him spray-painting a wall, Russell said, the cops had no right to beat him and then attempt to cover it up by failing to document the incident.
"Police officers are not above the law," she said. "When they cross the line . . . they have to be held accountable like everybody else."
While Vernitsky was on the ground trying to shield himself, Russell said, Hill ordered: "Move your hands, you bitch!" The cop then kicked the man in the crotch, she said.
To cover their tracks that night, Russell asserted, the officers wrote in their logs that at the time of the incident they were a half-mile away. She said that lie was later exposed when police Internal Affairs determined that the only officers to run Vernitsky's background from their car computer that night were Fitzgerald and Hill.
In their arguments, both the prosecution and defense referred to the Pledge of Allegiance, which was recited before opening statements began, unusual in most courtrooms but a regular practice in Judge Lynn's.
In her argument Russell reminded the jurors that the Constitution had been signed blocks from the courthouse and that the Pledge of Allegiance guarantees "liberty and justice for all" - including a graffiti tagger known as "OZ" with convictions for auto theft, burglary and criminal trespassing.
Later, Hill's attorney, Brian McMonagle, and Fitzgerald's attorney, Fortunato N. Perri Jr., thundered that the only injustice was that their clients were in danger of being stripped of their liberty on the word of a "career criminal" whose police statement is riddled with lies.
"Think about the Pledge of Allegiance," Perri said. "Are we going to let Vernitsky commit a crime and run from the police . . . and lie to Internal Affairs?"
The men were just doing their jobs and putting their lives on the line when they chased Vernitsky after seeing him defacing a building, the defense attorneys said.
Perri said that after Fitzgerald caught up to Vernitsky, he slammed the man against a car, causing him to fall to the ground and break his jaw.
McMonagle said the officers mistakenly reported where they were because they were so busy later that shift making a DUI arrest and a drug arrest, and then investigating a report of a man with a gun.
While Fitzgerald and Hill were serving the people, he said, Vernitsky "came up with an idea to get paid."
Vernitsky was never charged in the incident. His jaw was wired shut for five weeks. He settled with the city for $35,000.
He is not the first person to receive taxpayer money after encounters with Fitzgerald and Hill.
The city paid $14,500 to Joshua Pagan, who, at age 16 in 2007, was beaten by the officers after he ran when they caught him violating the city's juvenile curfew.