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‘The System Worked’: NBA Player Scores Victory Against NYPD In Court

Thabo Sefolosha receives congratulations outside the criminal courts in New York, Friday, October 9. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG
Thabo Sefolosha receives congratulations outside the criminal courts in New York, Friday, October 9. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SETH WENIG

It took a New York City jury less than an hour of deliberating on Friday to find Atlanta Hawks’ guard Thabo Sefolosha not guilty on all three counts stemming from an altercation with the NYPD in April — an incident his lawyer said was racially biased.

Sefolosha and a teammate, Pero Antic, were at a Manhattan nightclub when a scene broke out early in the morning following the stabbing of another basketball player, Chris Copeland of the Indiana Pacers. According to police, Sefolosha refused to disperse and resisted arrest. He suffered a broken leg and ligament damage in the altercation, ending his season just as the Hawks were headed to the NBA playoffs.

Sefolosha, a Swiss citizen of African heritage, was charged with three misdemeanors — obstructing governmental administration, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest — and rejected a plea deal offered by prosecutors, electing instead to go to trial.

“I knew what happened that night. And I feel like the world now knows,” Sefolosha told reporters outside of the courtroom on Friday.

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“I think its great that they found him not guilty,” Angel Harris, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told ThinkProgress. “It’s unfortunate that he had to endure a broken leg and the dehumanizing experience of being brutalized by police but I am happy that they found him not guilty. The system worked.”

It’s unfortunate that he had to endure a broken leg and the dehumanizing experience of being brutalized by police.

During the trial, Sefolosha’s lawyer, Alex Spiro, characterized the incident as one motivated by racial bias, saying the arresting officer, JohnPaul Giacona, “saw a black man in a hoodie” and went after him. According to the Associated Press, Spiro “pointed to surveillance video showing the white officer passing Antic, who also is white, and others as he demanded Sefolosha to move up the block.”

Four police officers testified, saying they repeatedly asked Sefolosha to move as they attempted to disperse the crowd and that he refused, and at one point was running aggressively at an officer with his arm outstretched. According to Sefolosha, he was reaching out to give money to a panhandler.

Throughout the trial and in the preceding months, Sefolosha has had the backing of his team (Hawks’ head coach Mike Budenholzer testified on his behalf Thursday, saying he was “of the highest character”), the National Basketball Players Association, the sport’s union (“THABO AQUITTED! JUSTICE PREVAILS! THABO HAD THE COURAGE TO FIGHT THE CHARGES — WE ARE SO PROUD!” union head Michele Roberts tweeted Friday), and the means to hire his own lawyer to defend him in court.

Many victims of police brutality aren’t so lucky, Harris explained.

“Going to trial is a luxury that some people just don’t have,” she said, calling instances of police brutality and excessive force, particularly in lower income communities and communities of color, “all too common.”

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Nevertheless, she sees a potential benefit to high-profile athletes like Sefolosha and former tennis star James Blake bringing attention to the prevalence of police brutality by speaking out about their own experiences.

While he was in New York for the U.S. Open in September, Blake was standing outside of his hotel, looking at his phone, when a plainclothes police officer, mistaking Blake for an identity theft suspect, violently tackled and handcuffed him.

I hope that because the police commissioner has apologized, maybe he will honestly look at the way that his officers are performing in the field.

Blake has been very outspoken about the incident, calling for the officer to be fired in the immediate aftermath. “I want him to know what he did was wrong, and that in my opinion, he doesn’t deserve to ever have a badge and a gun again, because he doesn’t know how to handle that responsibility effectively,” Blake said.

On Wednesday, the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the city’s independent agency for police misconduct, completed its investigation into the Blake incident. “The board substantiated the claim of excessive force against Officer [James] Frascatore and recommended the stiffest punishment: departmental charges that could lead to suspension or dismissal,” the New York Times reported.

Harris hopes the attention both incidents have received can spur much needed reform.

“I hope that it does create a change. I hope that because the police commissioner has apologized, maybe he will honestly look at the way that his officers are performing in the field, and discipline officers, make significant changes in the way that they do policing because it’s getting out of control,” she said, referring to the apology Blake received from Police Commissioner William J. Bratton. “This isn’t just, ‘sorry sir, that I wasted your time and asked you a couple questions;’ it’s a dehumanizing experience.”

Sefolosha said on Friday that he has not made a decision regarding whether or not he will sue the city.