New Orleans police Officer Tracy Fulton Sr. took the witness stand Thursday, demonstrating the right cross that broke Eladio Cruz’s nose following a vehicle incident last year and saying he launched the punch only after Cruz raised his fists in a “fighting stance” and kicked him in the shin.
Fulton, a 24-year NOPD veteran, acknowledged pulling his service revolver from his private car’s trunk during the altercation on Sept. 4, 2013, but he said he did so in self-defense after Cruz got up from the ground, pulled a machete out of a toolbox in his pickup and raised it menacingly in the air.
For more than an hour, Fulton disputed virtually every aspect of earlier testimony by Cruz, his girlfriend, their respective daughters and even fellow officers.
He is facing a second-degree battery charge that could cost him his career and land him behind bars for as much as five years if a jury of three men and three women convicts him.
The earlier witnesses claimed Fulton provoked a confrontation with Cruz over a minor vehicle scrape on Earhart Boulevard, then tracked the family home and assaulted the Spanish-speaking Cruz without provocation.
Just before he slugged Cruz, Fulton had been on the phone with the 2nd District police command desk to report the accident and request an officer. A recording captured him saying, “Hey, where’s your driver’s license at, man? You hit my vehicle,” and then, “I wish the f--- you would.”
Fulton, 47, acknowledged the off-color remark, saying he meant it as a warning after Cruz raised his fists.
“It was spontaneous, and I wasn’t looking for him to take a fighting stance,” Fulton said. “I wanted to see if I could talk him down. A way of telling him, ‘Don’t do it.’ ”
“Did it succeed?” asked his attorney, Eric Hessler.
“No, it didn’t,” Fulton responded. “Mr. Cruz stepped forward, kicked me, and at the same time, I threw a punch with my right hand.”
Cruz crumpled to the ground with a broken nose, a fractured jaw and a concussion from an altercation that seemed to result in part from a language barrier. Cruz and other occupants of his vehicle, all but one of whom spoke only Spanish, testified Wednesday that they never felt a bump from another vehicle and grew scared when Fulton approached their car, enraged for no apparent reason.
Orleans Parish prosecutor Angad Ghai questioned Fulton’s account, which came near the end of the second day of testimony in a trial slated to wrap up Friday with closing arguments from both sides.
Ghai portrayed an “old Western movie standoff,” with Fulton pointing a gun at a machete-wielding Cruz.
Fulton insisted it didn’t happen that way, disputing accounts that Cruz staggered to his truck for the machete only after the off-duty officer went back to his car for the gun.
Fulton described it the other way around, saying he went for the gun only after seeing Cruz grab for the blade.
“All I know was, there was a man coming toward me with a machete raised,” he said. “I felt justified to arm myself with my service revolver, yes.”
Had Cruz taken another few steps forward, Fulton said, he would have been justified in using lethal force.
Prosecutors and their witnesses claimed Fulton grew furious when his Lexus was bumped on Earhart and angrily strode up to the pickup truck as the four family members waited at a red light on their way home from a shopping trip.
Fulton tried to open the driver’s door on the truck, but Cruz rolled up the window and locked the door. Then, Fulton said, he grabbed the knob on the back door, pulling it open to find two girls sitting in the back, and tried again to talk to Cruz.
Family members said he was yelling and cursing racial epithets before heading back to his car and tracking the family a few blocks to their home on Forshey Street, then parking behind them.
Fulton claimed Thursday that he was cool and calm. When he approached Cruz outside the house, he said, he was met by a man who took a fighting stance.
Other witnesses said Fulton threatened to kill Cruz and hurled numerous racial epithets.
Melissa Cruz, now 14, testified that after Fulton raised his weapon, he said, “This sonofabitch is going to pay.”
Fulton vehemently denied it.
One thing he did acknowledge was that he never told Cruz or his family that he was a police officer or flashed his badge.
“I didn’t want him to feel like I was playing the police card. Most people say you pull your badge out, you want to be above the law,” he said. “It was a civil matter. I was off-duty in regular clothes. I just wanted to get the police there.”
Cruz and his daughter filed a federal civil rights lawsuit this month against Fulton, the city and the officer who after the fight cited Cruz for hit-and-run, driving without a license and careless operation of a vehicle.
The lawsuit claims Fulton “repeatedly kicked” Cruz in the stomach and smashed his head into the cement after the punch. However, none of the witnesses who testified this week said they saw Fulton repeatedly hit Cruz. Hessler has sought to highlight the discrepancies and suggest a financial motive for the witnesses to lie.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.