The main players involved in a federal police brutality trial took the stand Tuesday in Baton Rouge, each giving conflicting versions of how a New Orleans man wound up with damaged teeth, a bloodied mouth and glass in his arm following a marijuana-related police raid.
Most of the focus is on Baton Rouge police Cpl. Robert Moruzzi, who’s accused of gratuitously stomping on Brett Percle and causing the man’s face to slam into the tile floor of a house just outside Baton Rouge on June 11, 2014.
Moruzzi, who appeared unruffled in U.S. District Court Judge Shelly D. Dick’s courtroom, testified he applied pressure to the back of Percle’s upper shoulder with his knee in order to handcuff him during the chaotic event but denied allegations he slammed his foot into Percle, who was lying face-down.
Neither “I nor anybody on my team did anything to cause his injuries,” said Moruzzi, who was acting as a member of the Baton Rouge Police Department’s Special Response Team at the time of the raid.
The officer’s defense team has suggested Percle somehow knocked out his own teeth when he descended to the floor in response to authorities’ orders to get down.
But Percle testified he felt the foot of an officer he later learned to be Moruzzi’s slamming the back of his head, neck and upper shoulder into the floor so hard his head rebounded and was knocked down again.
“Did you see it?” asked Tedrick K. Knightshead, the lawyer representing Moruzzi and the other defendants, which include the city of Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie Jr. and Detective Jason Acree, who supervised the raid.
“I didn’t see it; I felt it,” Percle said, explaining a man’s foot could cover part of a person’s head, neck and shoulder.
Percle, 24, said he experienced a version of being “curb stomped,” referring to an act of violence in which a person is made to put their teeth on a curb and is then struck in the back of the head.
Several photographs were shown in court Tuesday, one of which shows Percle’s face just after the incident, with a tooth apparently missing and his mouth dripping with blood. Another image shows Percle holding his own tooth connected to its root, immediately after the incident.
The photo gallery included a picture of Percle’s left neck and upper shoulder area, which showed a red mark, and other images depicting the house’s floor, wet with blood and water, just after the raid.
“Obviously, he’d taken a blow to just under the nose,” testified Thomas Taylor, a dentist who examined and treated Percle and who appeared in court by way of a video deposition.
The incident in question happened about 2:30 p.m. at 1486 Lila Ave. as Percle and a few of his friends were spending time together, he said. The house was the subject of a search warrant drawn up by Acree, who testified Tuesday he believed marijuana was being sold out of the house because he orchestrated a successful “controlled buy” with a confidential informant who purchased the drug from someone inside the house.
Ultimately, the warrant resulted in the seizure of $1,600 cash and a few ounces of marijuana. Two of Percle’s friends were arrested in the incident but were later let go. Percle was never arrested, and no charges in the case have ever been filed.
Adam Hunkapillar, 23, testified Tuesday he’d been taking a nap at the Lila Avenue home, where he was living, when he was woken up by banging and yelling. He was ordered to the floor by officers, who later told him and his friends to take off their clothing, spread their buttocks and allow their genitals to be searched, he said.
A paramedic dressed in tactical gear working as part of the Special Response Team was on scene and removed bits of glass that had become lodged in Percle’s arm during the ordeal, Percle said. Percle testified that when the team officers entered the house, they shoved a table, causing items, including a water glass, to fall and shatter.
But after Percle asked the medic to treat his mouth or take him to a hospital, the medic told him, “You may need to see a dentist and maybe a therapist,” said Hunkapillar, who said he witnessed the exchange.
Moruzzi offered a different account of the episode. He said though he’s served over a hundred warrants and they mostly “blend together” in his mind, he vividly remembers three such incidents, including the one involving Percle.
“I’ve never seen a person act like Brett Percle was acting,” testified Moruzzi, who said unlike the other men in the house, Percle failed to drop to the floor immediately.
Instead, Moruzzi said, Percle was still sitting in a chair at a table when officers walked in. Percle was acting “flamboyant” and was screaming, in a panic, Moruzzi said.
“It was almost surreal,” Moruzzi said.
Eventually, Percle lay on the floor and was handcuffed, Moruzzi said.
A large glass bong was steaming on a table inside the house, and the odor of marijuana in the air was hard to ignore, Moruzzi said.
Percle said he had not smoked any marijuana that day.
Acree, the supervising detective, said he had no direct knowledge of the interaction between Moruzzi and Percle, as he wasn’t inside the house at the time because he’s not part of the Special Response Team. His job is to conduct a search after the team officers have secured an area, he said.
Acree acknowledged his warrant didn’t specifically ask for the authority to search vehicles not on the premises or people’s bodies but said it covered vehicles, items, devices or “anything associated that could aid in the trafficking of narcotics.”
Acree also conceded he never obtained the consent of anyone at the Lila Avenue home to search their bodies or their cars, though those searches took place. He couldn’t recall any department policy on strip-searches, but said because the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison performs cavity searches on new inmates, he frequently conducts strip searches beforehand on detainees at the places where they’re being questioned, which tend to offer more privacy.
Acree said it’s a matter of officer safety to make sure suspects don’t have weapons, which are easy to hide.
Percle said officers patted him down, found his car keys and, without his permission, ransacked the inside of his vehicle, which was parked two houses away.
A significant portion of testimony, including that of Percle’s mother, was devoted to Percle’s depression and personal turmoil both before and after the 2014 event. A psychologist, Jennifer Traughber, said Percle was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after the police raid. Percle still suffers nightmares, and his insomnia and a newfound fear of police — despite having several law enforcement officers in his family — made it difficult for him to stay in college and maintain jobs since the raid.
Percle, who frequently wiped tears from his face Tuesday, also said he dropped out of LSU because he couldn’t afford to stay in school. His medical and dental bills because of the 2014 incident total upward of $13,000, according to testimony.
Knightshead, in his opening statement Monday, suggested Percle is simply hoping to win money from the case. Percle’s lawyer, Kearney S. Loughlin, said it’s ridiculous to think Percle would go through the anguish of a trial because of money.
Follow Maya Lau on Twitter, @mayalau.