The lies that a graffiti tagger told on the witness stand this week proved more egregious to a Philadelphia judge than the alleged beating and broken jaw the man suffered after a run-in with two police officers in 2007.
Common Pleas Judge James Murray Lynn yesterday, at the request of the now-ex-cops' defense attorneys, ruled that the testimony given on Wednesday by David Vernitsky was so riddled with lies that the trial could not proceed.
Calling Vernitsky, 40, a liar and a "patently unreliable witness," Lynn announced a judgment of acquittal, meaning he believed the evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction.
The dramatic turn of events allowed Sheldon Fitzgerald, 32, and Howard Hill III, 33, to leave the Criminal Justice Center free men. The U.S. Constitution's double-jeopardy clause shields the men from being retried on charges of aggravated assault and related counts.
"Vernitsky was caught in 10 or more lies," Lynn said, adding that Vernitsky was uncredible because he had drunk heavily and used marijuana on the day of the incident. "And the worst of it was that some of those lies were made directly to the jury. The others were made to the police."
During his testimony, Vernitsky, a/k/a OZ, admitted that he had lied to police about various details of what transpired on Aug. 26, 2007 - the night the prosecution alleged that Fitzgerald and Hill had beaten him and tried to cover it up after catching him spray-painting a Feltonville building.
On the witness stand, Vernitsky changed his story about whom he was with that night. He changed his story about what he had written on the wall. His assertion that he'd only ever painted graffiti on 10 walls appeared suspect when, on Thursday, the judge allowed the jury to see two splashes of graffiti in the courthouse that the defense asserted were done by Vernitsky.
"I'll be on the phone with Commissioner Ramsey next week asking for their reinstatement," Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby said of Fitzgerald and Hill.
"Obviously, it's just a great relief to give these men their lives back," said Hill's attorney, Brian McMonagle.
"These two men have waited four years for this day, to be vindicated," said Fortunato N. Perri Jr., Fitzgerald's attorney.
The defense attorneys argued that Vernitsky was not beaten but broke his jaw when Fitzgerald tackled him into a car and he hit the ground.
Assistant District Attorney Meriah Russell told the jury that the beating the officers gave Vernitsky required his jaw to be wired shut for five weeks. The cops tried to cover their tracks by reporting that they were elsewhere when the incident happened, she said.
"We're obviously very disappointed with the outcome," Russell said. "The judge made his decision, and we obviously respect that decision even if we don't agree with it."