Judge rules Portland teen not guilty of resisting arrest, has stern words for police

By Aimee Green | The Oregonian | March 12, 2015

A Multnomah County judge Thursday found a 16-year-old boy not guilty of all criminal charges filed against him after a violent tussle with Portland police last year on a North Portland sidewalk.

Circuit Judge Diana Stuart ruled that Thai Gurule, a Roosevelt High School sophomore, didn't resist arrest. He also didn't strangle and assault police officers, she said.

In a strongly worded decision, which took more than 15 minutes to read aloud, the judge said the officers put Gurule at significant risk of injury in "a melee of fists and punches and bodies falling upon him."

The judge said that although police at first might have intended to be gentle with Gurule as they took him into custody, their actions turned into "a senseless and aggressive" show of excessive force.

The case hit a nerve with many in the community -- three Portland police officers tackling, punching, kneeing, using a Taser and pulling the hair of an African American teen in full view of outraged spectators. Two bystanders recorded the encounter with their cellphone cameras.

The judge said she didn't find parts of the testimony of one of the officers, Betsy Hornstein, to be accurate.

"Hornstein was not credible in several important instances," the judge said.

Hornstein claimed Gurule was throwing punches throughout the encounter, but that was clearly not the case from viewing the videos, the judge said. The videos also didn't show Gurule ever putting his arm around Hornstein's neck or throat and strangling her, as Hornstein had testified.

"It is clear that when the youth's arm came in contact with Officer Hornstein, his arm was around her shoulder not in any kind of choke hold," the judge said.

A relieved Gurule hugged his attorney, Stephen Houze, then members of his family, who had been sitting in the courtroom. Houze took on Gurule's case pro bono. Gurule has no criminal history, Houze said.

After the verdict was announced, Houze told The Oregonian/OregonLive that virtually all police officers work hard in an effort to protect the public.

"But in this particular instance, what happened at the hands of several police officers was outrageous," Houze said. ... One can only hope that (the judge's words) sent an appropriate message to the individuals involved and perhaps the leadership of the Portland Police Bureau."

Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said Thursday he couldn't offer immediate comment, but that he planned to discuss the verdict on Friday with Police Chief Larry O'Dea.

The judge had previously ruled that police committed an unlawful stop of Gurule, who was walking with his brother and a friend a few minutes after midnight last Sept. 14 near North Philadelphia Avenue and Ivanhoe Street in the St. Johns neighborhood.

Prosecutor Lori Fellows had argued during closing arguments in the Juvenile Court trial last week that though the judge said police didn't have lawful authority to stop Gurule, he still violated Oregon's resisting arrest law. The statute states that a wrongful stop isn't a defense to the crime of resisting arrest.

"There are obvious public safety reasons that the statute is very clear: You can't resist arrest," Fellows said. "The place to settle those disputes ...is not on a street corner. That puts the youth in danger. That puts the officers in danger."

But Houze said his client didn't commit any crimes that night because he was acting in self-defense against unnecessary force.

"This is a 16-year-old child frightened by the circumstances he's been confronted with, having done nothing wrong," Houze said.

"We're dealing not with a 30-year-old hardened criminal, someone you saw running from a bank robbery," Houze continued. "This is a kid walking down the street, minding his own business. And when they accosted him, it scared him."

Police that night had been looking for a group of seven to nine African American men, including one shirtless one, who had been walking the streets, reportedly damaging property and yelling profanities. Within minutes of receiving the group's last known location, police several blocks away focused their attention on a group of three young men: Gurule, his 20-year-old brother and their friend.

Police stopped them even though all three were wearing shirts and Gurule and his brother had large Afros, Houze said. The "distinctive" hairstyle wasn't listed as part of the description of the suspects, he said.

Officers testified that Gurule began to walk away and that when he was ordered to stop, he didn't, so officers Hornstein and David Hughes grabbed Gurule's arms.

The cellphone videos are dramatically different, Houze said, than police reports, which he called "works of fiction."

One of the videos begins when the officers are standing on either side of Gurule, holding his arms. The officers and Gurule appear relatively still for a few seconds when suddenly the officers try to take Gurule to the ground. Both officers testified that Gurule tensed up and balled his fists, so they tried to push him to the ground and handcuff him.

An officer can be heard yelling "Lay down on the ground!" While it's difficult to discern individual movements from the video, the officers said Gurule struggled and flailed. Hornstein testified that Gurule punched her below the eye and wrapped his arm around her neck twice.

A third officer -- Sgt. Jason Lile -- had joined in the struggle and piled on top of Gurule, who appears to be trying to stand back up and pull away from the officers. Lile testified that he pulled Gurule's hair because it was the only available part of the teen that he could grab.

"I know there's been an issue that I grabbed his hair, but it's a good way to control someone's movement," Lile said.

The video shows police punching and deploying "knee strikes" into Gurule's torso. Hornstein can be heard warning Gurule, "You're going to get Tased!"

Less than 90 seconds after the struggle began, Lile used his Taser on Gurule, who can be heard wailing over and over in apparent pain.

Lile testified that he didn't want Gurule to get hurt hitting the pavement, so Lile stuck his leg in front of Gurule to break his fall. Lile said he ended up with a complete tear of his ACL and meniscus in his knee. He said he underwent reconstructive surgery and has only recently -- as of March 3, more than five months after the incident -- been cleared to return to full duty.

Gurule was handcuffed and taken into custody. The angry spectators didn't take what they saw quietly.

Gurule's brother, Giovanni Gurule, can be heard at the beginning of one of the videos saying, "Can I ask you a question? What did my little brother do? He don't do nothing. He plays football for Roosevelt, come on now. He don't drink. He don't smoke."

Voices from the crowd can be heard saying: "Stop pulling his hair!" "Why are you punching him?" "That's illegal!" "What's the problem that he caused?" and "Quit standing in front of my camera!"

A man recording from a second cellphone exclaims: "That was unnecessary Portland P.D. That's a little kid. Look, they're beating him. They're punching the kid."

Meanwhile, officers can be seen trying to control the crowd.

"You guys need to cross back in the street, or you're going to go to jail," an officer tells spectators. "This is legal, it's a sidewalk," responds a man.

Gurule's brother went to trial in adult court in January. Judge Cheryl Albrecht found him guilty of misdemeanor interfering with a police officer and resisting arrest, but acquitted him of disorderly conduct. Albrecht sentenced him to 64 hours of community service and two years of probation.