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Graffiti delay two officers' trial in graffitist's beating

The great and powerful Oz was elsewhere Thursday, but his calling card was left behind in Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center.

The great and powerful Oz was elsewhere Thursday, but his calling card was left behind in Philadelphia's Criminal Justice Center.

The morning after graffitist David Vernitsky - a.k.a. "Oz" - testified at the trial of two former Philadelphia police officers accused of breaking his jaw after catching him in the act four years ago, the red tags "Oz" and "Oz loves Chrissy" appeared at the center on the same floor where the trial is taking place.

There's no proof that after he left the witness stand Wednesday, Vernitsky, 40, wrote what he told the Common Pleas Court jury were his nom de spray can and the love note to his female companion.

Nevertheless, the incident - and the fact that jurors spotted one of the tags in a public elevator - wound up delaying continuation of testimony until late afternoon.

The graffiti, in one elevator and a stairwell, were officially viewed by the jury in a two-minute walking tour over the objections of Assistant District Attorney Meriah Russell. Russell contended the graffiti were irrelevant to the assault trial of Sheldon B. Fitzgerald, 32, and Howard Hill 3d, 33.

But Judge James Murray Lynn agreed with defense attorneys Brian J. McMonagle and Fortunato N. "Fred" Perri Jr., who argued that the jury should be allowed to view the graffiti as a challenge to Vernitsky's credibility during testimony Wednesday.

That testimony apparently did not go well, with Vernitsky admitting several times that he had lied to police and the jury about the number of times he had tagged buildings. The defense lawyers maintained the new graffiti arguably showed that Vernitsky believes he can lie and tag with impunity.

Thursday's delay was not the first problem Vernitsky's graffiti has caused with the trial. On Wednesday, an alternate juror was dismissed after he told the judge he realized Oz had tagged his neighbor's house and other nearby buildings.

The officers, then both on the force for four years, were on patrol about 12:30 a.m. on Aug. 26, 2007, when they allegedly assaulted Vernitsky after catching him spray-painting a wall at Fourth Street and Wyoming Avenue in Feltonville.

Vernitsky had been attending a wedding reception and said he was going to write his name and a congratulatory message to the bride and groom.

Vernitsky, who admitted that he had been drinking and smoking marijuana, bolted when he saw the officers but said they caught up to him and kicked and beat him before throwing him into their patrol car.

The officers maintained that Vernitsky broke his jaw and lost three teeth when he was pushed up against the patrol car as he was being apprehended.

Prosecutors say the officers dropped off Vernitsky on the sidewalk a block away, where another wedding guest found him and took him to a hospital.

In addition to assault charges, the two officers are charged with failing to file reports of the incident and lying to investigators. The charges were twice dismissed by judges at hearings in 2009, but the District Attorney's Office appealed and state Superior Court reinstated the charges and ordered the officers to stand trial.