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1991: Tale of the videotape
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
Nine months after the world saw the Los Angeles cops beating up Rodney King on television, a Trenton policeman known as "Big Red" was confronted by a man questioning the arrest of his stepson.

The stepfather, a lanky lightweight named Thomas Downing, stood before the big cop with his hands in his pockets protesting about the 16-year-old boy being put into a police wagon.

Earl Hill — the 6-foot-8, 280-pound cop — kept his eyes on Downing as he extended his right arm to put his walkie-talkie on the hood of the police wagon.

Hill then lashed out with a haymaker, walloping the left side of Downing’s head with his open right hand. Downing was spun around into a smack from Hill’s left hand.

Flailing with his arms, advancing with his girth, Hill pushed 150-pound Downing into the wagon, where the protester fell and rolled up in a ball.

In an upstairs apartment across North Olden Avenue from the alley where Hill was beating Downing, an aspiring filmmaker was capturing all the action on video, just as happened when Rodney King was beaten by cops in March 1991.

And as it happened in L.A., the video wound up in the hands of the media, which showed it to the world and once again spotlighted tension between Trenton’s cops and black community.

The reaction in most of Trenton in early December 1991 was outrage, as it had been nine months earlier in California.

"Pictures don’t lie," a man on the street named Phil, who would not give his last name, told The Trentonian. "It happens all the time. The cops are just finally getting caught."

Fearful of violent reaction to the cop-beating running repeatedly on television, even in slow motion, Trenton authorities moved swiftly to show the public that policemen weren’t immune from prosecution on assault charges.

And as happened in L.A., after jurors in Trenton saw the video beating over and over in the courtroom, they acquitted the cop. Like the King jurors, the Trenton jury said cops who felt threatened could use their nightsticks or fists.

But after Hill was acquitted on Feb. 19, 1993, there was no disorder in Trenton, as there was in South Central L.A. when those cops were found not guilty in the King beating.

Why calm prevailed has as much to with the weather and peaceful nature of Trentonians as with the attention of the city being diverted that day by a major development in another big Trenton case: The kidnapping, rape and murder of Kristen Huggins.

After Hill’s acquittal, some of his colleagues asked how the video of Hill beating Downing came out in the first place and why officials reacted so harshly to it?

The Trentonian broke the story of the Hill assault on Saturday, Dec. 7, 1991. The front-page picture, taken from the video, showed Hill landing a blow to Downing’s face. The big headline read "City Cop’s Brutality Caught on Tape.’’

The newspaper had received the tape the night before when a man knocked on an office window and told reporters he had a tape they’d want to see.

The photographer, whose identity was withheld in the initial news reports, was an aspiring rap video producer named Steve Wesley who said he had filmed the action at about 1:30 the previous Sunday afternoon, Dec. 1, from his quarters above a shop on North Olden at East State Street.

Wesley said he had just purchased the used videocamera from a friend and was testing it by recording street scenes from his perch on the second floor when the confrontation between Hill and Downing started.

Hill and his rookie partner, Charles Parrish, pulled up in the alley across North Olden from Wesley’s apartment that afternoon to grab 16-year-old Dana Johnson, a suspect in a stolen car case who lived down the street.

As Parrish was escorting the boy into the back of the police wagon, Downing, 28, walked up to Hill with his hands in his pockets and, as could be heard on the tape, started asking the cop why his stepson was being taken away.

In seconds, Hill was lashing out wildly and the audio of him was loud and clear: "Don’t tell me how to do my f......... job," he kept saying as he smacked away at Downing.

Soon after The Trentonian story hit the streets, the Philadelphia and New York television stations were calling the newspaper seeking a copy of the tape.

Within hours, the story was on national television and the Trenton police brass was calling the newspaper asking for a viewing.

That afternoon, Public Safety Director Ernest A. Williams, Chief of Police Frank M. Brady and Mayor Doug Palmer’s chief of staff, Bill Watson, sat down in a headquarters conference room to see the video.

"Oh, spit!’’ Williams blurted out on seeing Hill blast skinny 6-footer Downing with the first shot. Through the four minutes of violent footage, the officials winced and groaned.

When the viewing was over, Brady said he wouldn’t suspend Hill right away because it might make the city vulnerable to a claim for back pay or damages. That’s when Watson piped in:

"Now wait a minute, chief. The tape will be reviewed by the law department and at that time a decision will be made, chief — obviously through your office.’’

The next Monday, Dec. 9, the tape had been playing on television for two days and the news reports were filled with comments from Trentonians alleging routine police brutality.

Al Sharpton, the boisterous civil rights agitator from New York, showed up that day to stage a protest near the beating scene. Downing was a bit bewildered by the sudden attention to his case.

He had complained to police internal affairs detectives the day after the beating, showing them his bruised up face, and they didn’t seem interested, Downing said. Now that the tape had been on TV, he said, investigators from all kinds of law enforcement agencies were calling him seeking his cooperation in their probe.

Later that Monday, Brady got the word from the lawyers at City Hall and suspended Hill, 34, a seven-year veteran of the force who had three children.

Brady wanted to put Hill in a desk job at headquarters until the assault probe was finished, but he was overruled. Hill was suspended without pay, which angered his friends and neighbors.

In his neighborhood, Hills many supporters said his very presence on Tioga Street kept the drug dealers away. The children all looked up to him and Hill was a pretty good barber, they said.

"Earl’s not violent. He’s a big teddy bear,’’ one neighbor said.

Still, he had created a lot of heat for Trenton officialdom. By Dec. 12, five days after the story broke, no fewer than eight complaints about police use of force had been filed with the internal affairs squad.

Which prompted a response from the patrol officers’ union. Led by the union president, Officer Tom Murphy, 50 cops marched into City Hall and the office of the mayor to protest. They booed Palmer and chanted, "Hill for Mayor.’’

Mercer County prosecutors then started moving against Hill. By Jan. 29, 1992, less than 60 days after the beating, Hill was under indictment on assault and misconduct charges.

The night of the indictment, Hill broke his silence about the incident and told the national television news magazine 48 Hours that he felt threatened by Downing, even though the man was much smaller than him.

"Size don’t mean anything,’’ Hill said. "A kid can pull a trigger.’’

Hill said he felt threatened because Downing kept his hands in his pockets, perhaps concealing a knife or gun, and that he had to strike before he got hurt himself.

Thus was born the "preemptive strike’’ defense, as it was labeled by Murphy, one of Hill’s behind-the-scenes legal advisors. Don’t judge the incident by what could be seen in the tape, Hill’s defenders said, because not all of the confrontation had been recorded.

Hill hired a former Mercer prosecutor, Bruce Schragger, to defend him in criminal court and against the $50 million suit filed against him by Downing, who would lose the civil case also.

In early February of 1993, the criminal trial started with prosecutors showing the tape to the jury. Schragger, taking a page from the book of the lawyers who defended the LA cops against the King charges, kept replaying the tape for the jury — at least 20 times.

All the while he pointed to Downing’s hands and asked the jurors if Hill didn’t have cause for concern about some weapon being concealed by the alleged victim. Schragger also argued that Downing made a threatening comment to Hill in the seconds before the tape started rolling.

On Feb. 11, Hill himself took the stand and testified: "I felt threatened. I didn’t know what he had in his pockets. I reacted by striking him with an open hand. I am not larger than a bullet.’’

Along with the mystery of what had happened to missing suburban artist Huggins, Hill’s trial was the talk of the town that month. Some predicted post-trial rioting like that seen in LA after the King beaters were acquitted in a criminal trial.

But in Trenton, as one Hill neighbor suggested, there could be a violent reaction no matter how the verdict went.

"If the jury lets him off," she said, "there’s going to be violence because he’s a cop. If he’s convicted, people will say it’s because he’s black.’’

On Feb. 18, with the jury in its second day of deliberations, cops and other courthouse observers were expecting a verdict any minute.

As the sun started setting in late afternoon, some Trenton police officers were heading out of headquarters with the woman who had told them her "psychic’’ sister had directed her to the body of missing Huggins.

Just after sunset, the jury came in and announced the acquittal of Hill on all counts. Hill gave Schragger a big bear hug and emerged from the court house wearing a wide grin.

"I didn’t want to beat that man,’’ Hill told reporters, "but I can’t second guess my life out there. If that man had backed away, this would never have happened.’’

At the same time, detectives were finding the body of 22-year-old Huggins, a Bucks County artist last seen alive in Trenton 63 days earlier, in a shallow grave in the railyard beneath the Southard Street viaduct.

Within hours, the detectives would be charging the woman who led them to the body, Gloria Dunn, in connection with the rape and shooting murder of Huggins on Dec. 17, 1992.

The next day, the find of Huggins’ body, the arrest of Dunn and her connection to the suspected killer, Ambrose Harris, was the main story on the front page of The Trentonian. Hill’s acquittal was presented in a smaller box atop the cover.

In the chilly days and weeks that followed, the media was preoccupied with the police effort to link Harris, who was locked up on a separate rape charge, to the slaying of Huggins.

Earl Hill’s acquittal, and the talk that any verdict would cause unrest on the streets, was soon forgotten amid all the news about the Huggins case.

A few months later, Hill would demand the city pay him more than two years of back salary, plus the $67,000 his defense had cost. And just as Brady had warned in December 1991, the city had to pay up.

Earl Hill, who is still on the force today, got in sone last words that became a theme in police discussions with City Hall for the rest of the 1990s: "When you put politics above police work, you put policemen’s lives in jeopardy."