The saga of two fired Philadelphia cops on trial for allegedly trying to cover up the brutal beating of a graffiti vandal in 2007 took a bizarre turn yesterday when he was accused of striking at the Criminal Justice Center.
Defense lawyers said that after testifying against ex-cops Sheldon Fitzgerald and Howard Hill III on Wednesday, victim David Vernitsky, a/k/a "OZ," defaced the interior door of an elevator and a stairwell wall on the sixth floor, where the trial is taking place.
"Oz ♥ Chrissy" was written in red marker in the stairwell. Vernitsky's wife's name is Christine. The same red marker was used to write "OZ" on the elevator door.
Vernitsky, 40, was not in court yesterday, and it was not clear if he would be charged with defacing public property.
The discovery of the graffiti stopped the trial for several hours.
Defense attorneys Brian McMonagle, for Hill, and Fortunato N. Perri Jr., for Fitzgerald, asked Common Pleas Judge James Murray Lynn to allow the jury to see the scribbling.
They argued that Vernitsky lied when he testified that he had written on only 10 walls in his life and that allowing the jurors to see what he had done in the courthouse would help them assess his credibility.
Assistant District Attorney Meriah Russell and the D.A. Office's chief of special investigations, Patrick Blessington, argued that the graffiti was a distraction and had nothing to do with the trial.
"I'm going to let them see it. In for a penny, in for a pound," Judge Lynn said in ruling in favor of the defense.
Court staffers led the jurors out of the courtroom and down the hallway to view Vernitsky's alleged handiwork. They returned two minutes later.
"How does a guy come to court as a complainant and graffiti all over the Criminal Justice Center?" Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby said during the break. "He's just completely disrespecting the process and the court. He needs to be sitting in the defendant's chair, not these guys."
Fitzgerald and Hill, both 33, are charged with aggravated assault and related crimes for allegedly beating Vernitsky, breaking his jaw and dumping him on a Feltonville street on Aug. 26, 2007.
Vernitsky, a prolific graffiti vandal with a criminal record, ran when the officers spotted him tagging a building near 4th Street and Wyoming Avenue at 12:30 a.m.
The defense attorneys told the jury during opening statements Wednesday that the officers had not beaten him.
After Fitzgerald caught up to Vernitsky, the attorneys said, he slammed the graffiti tagger against a car, causing him to fall to the ground and break his jaw.
In another strange twist, a juror was excused Wednesday after telling the judge that he could not be impartial because his neighbor's home and two other buildings in his Northern Liberties community had been tagged by "OZ."