An Orleans Parish jury took the word of New Orleans police Officer Tracy Fulton Sr. over that of a host of witnesses who claimed he assaulted Eladio Cruz without provocation last year, breaking Cruz’s nose and causing him lasting injuries and headaches after the off-duty cop grew enraged over a slight vehicle scrape on Earhart Boulevard.
After deliberating for five hours, the jury of three men and three women acquitted the 25-year police veteran late Friday on a count of second-degree battery. The verdict came a day after Fulton testified that he hit Cruz only after the Spanish-speaking man raised his fists in a “fighting stance,” moved forward and kicked him in the shins.
Cruz ended up with a broken nose, a concussion and an injured jaw, according to testimony in the case. He also was cited for hit-and-run, driving without a license and careless operation of a vehicle.
After Fulton, 47, was charged with a felony, he was suspended and then assigned to desk duty while the criminal case moved forward.
Cruz, his 14-year-old daughter Melissa, his girlfriend and her daughter all testified that Fulton became enraged after the apparent traffic bump on Sept. 4, 2013, hurling racial epithets and trying to confront Cruz at a red light as the family returned from a shopping trip.
Fulton then followed them home a few blocks to Forshey Street, strode up to Cruz and knocked him down with a right cross to the face, they testified. Cruz then reached into the bed of his pickup for a machete as Fulton retreated to his car for his service revolver, leading to what Assistant District Attorney Angad Ghai described as “an old Western movie standoff.”
Fulton, who was off-duty and in street clothes at the time, acknowledged that he never showed his badge or said he was a cop, despite what the trial showed was an evident language barrier.
He called the Second District command desk, which recorded a snippet of his confrontation with Cruz. Fulton is heard saying, “Hey, where’s your driver’s license at, man? You hit my vehicle,” and then, “I wish the f*** you would.”
Fulton said the latter comment was a warning after Cruz cocked a fist at him.
Fulton’s attorney, Eric Hessler, labeled Cruz, his daughter and the others as liars during his closing argument Friday morning. He also said the NOPD’s Public Integrity Bureau botched its investigation of the incident.
“The recorded phone call clearly showed that every alleged witness the state put up was lying,” Hessler said after the verdict. “Thank God for that phone call. Here’s a guy (Fulton) that knows he didn’t do anything. He certainly believed the system would work. He’s seen it work before, and thankfully it worked again today.”
The witnesses said they saw and heard Fulton threaten to kill Cruz, raise his gun at him and say, “This sonofabitch is going to pay.”
Cruz testified through a translator that he didn’t flee from an accident scene — all of the witnesses testified they weren’t aware the vehicles had touched — but that he “was trying to get away from the crazy man.”
Hessler played up inconsistencies among the witnesses’ accounts, and the differences between their recollections at the trial of seeing Fulton deck Cruz with one punch and the allegations contained in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed two weeks ago by Cruz and his daughter against Fulton, the city and the officer who cited him for the traffic violations.
The lawsuit claims Fulton repeatedly kicked Cruz in the stomach and “violently smashed” Cruz’s head into the cement after the punch. It says Cruz, barely conscious, crawled to his truck to get the machete to defend himself.
Fulton argued that he went back to his trunk for his service revolver only after he saw Cruz get up and reach for the revolver.
The charge he faced carried a maximum five-year sentence. With his acquittal, Fulton now faces an administrative investigation over his job status.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.