In a courtroom overflowing with police and supporters, a jury on Monday acquitted two former Philadelphia police officers of beating and falsely prosecuting a Fairhill man who fled on his motor scooter after a traffic stop and led them on a pursuit driving the wrong way on busy Lehigh Avenue.
Former Officers Sean McKnight and Kevin Robinson left the Common Pleas Court room in the embraces of fellow 25th District officers and amid the tears of relieved relatives.
Robinson's wife, Amanda, who was pregnant with their now 2-year-old daughter when he and McKnight were charged in the 2013 arrest of Najee Rivera, wept as she hugged and kissed her husband.
Neither officer had any immediate comment on the acquittals. Their lawyers, Brian J. McMonagle for McKnight and Fortunato N. Perri Jr. for Robinson, left court to congratulations and cheers.
Perri said he believed the security video of the May 29, 2013, incident persuaded jurors to acquit the officers. On Monday morning, the jury of seven men and five women twice was allowed to review the video.
"We appreciate the jury's hard work and their service, but we're not going to comment on the facts of the case," said Cameron Kline, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.
It was the second criminal case involving a 25th District officer to end in acquittal. On Friday, a Philadelphia jury acquitted Edward Sawicki III of charges he used racial slurs and threatened to kill a man following an off-duty 2013 traffic mishap in South Philadelphia.
Sawicki was present Monday to congratulate McKnight and Robinson.
Arguably the biggest weakness in the prosecution's case was that Rivera, 23, died last Dec. 20, 15 days after he was shot in a street fight at C and Somerset Streets in Kensington.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock told the jury in his opening statement that Rivera was murdered in an unrelated incident.
Without Rivera's presence, the key evidence against the officers was a security camera video with sound that Rivera's girlfriend found.
The video shows the officers' cruiser pulling alongside Rivera. An arm reaches out from the car, and Rivera falls off the scooter to the sidewalk.
The blurry video then shows the officers moving on Rivera, accompanied by screams and police orders to "show your hands."
Rivera was taken to an emergency room for treatment of a broken eye-socket bone, and seven stitches and 18 staples in seven areas in his face and head.
Rivera was charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and resisting arrest.
The District Attorney's Office withdrew charges after it learned of the video, and took the allegations against the officers to a grand jury.
Both officers testified in their defense, and said their supervisors had warned them to watch for young men on motor bikes and ATVs because local drug gangs were using them to ferry drugs and guns around Fairhill.
The officers described how they stopped Rivera at Sixth and Cambria Streets in Fairhill after he ran a stop sign.
As they got out of their cruiser, the officers testified, Rivera sped off. They lost sight of him but said they now suspected he fled because there was contraband in the bike.
As they continued patrolling the neighborhood, Robinson testified, they spotted Rivera driving east in the westbound lanes of Lehigh between Sixth and Seventh Street. Rivera and the pursuing officers wound up back at Sixth and Cambria, where Rivera fell off the scooter.
The officers said Rivera wrestled with Robinson and struggled to avoid being handcuffed by McKnight.
McKnight said he deployed his "asp" - a collapsible baton - and used it on Rivera, trying to subdue him. When Rivera grabbed the asp, collapsing it, McKnight said, he regained possession and struck Rivera in the side of the head with the butt.
McKnight, 31, who became an officer in 2007, and Robinson, 28, an officer since 2006, were each charged with aggravated assault and conspiracy, and six counts involving Rivera's alleged false arrest and prosecution.
Wellbrock maintained that McKnight and Robinson used excessive force on Rivera and arrested him to try to cover up their roles in the incident.
The defense lawyers told the jury that the officers told investigators exactly what the video showed. They argued that the officers used only the force needed to subdue Rivera and did not touch him after he stopped resisting and was cuffed.
Rivera subsequently lost his job as a housekeeper at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city last year, which the city settled for $200,000.