The District of Columbia Court of Appeals ordered (PDF) a new trial this morning for Ronald Coles, a local man convicted of shooting a police officer in the leg during a 2007 confrontation. The court found that the trial judge erred in barring Coles' attorney from pursuing a line of questioning about whether police had conspired to cover up evidence that an officer, and not Coles, fired the gun.
While on patrol in the Trinidad neighborhood in April 2007, three police officers saw Coles and another man carrying Styrofoam cups and suspected they were in violation of the city's open container laws. When they attempted to confront Coles, he ran, and allegedly held a hand to his waistband as if he had a gun there.
The officers caught up to him and, during the struggle, a single shot was fired, passing through one officer’s calf and striking Coles in the thigh. The gun was recovered and prosecutors attempted to prove at trial that it belonged to Coles. Coles' attorney argued a theory that one of the officers had fired the shot – he presented evidence that Coles couldn’t have hit the officers’ leg and his own had he fired near his waist – and then conspired to cover it up.
A District of Columbia Superior Court jury convicted Coles in March 2009 of aggravated assault, resisting a police officer and illegal possession of a firearm and ammunition. He was sentenced to serve six years in jail.
On appeal, Coles argued that Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz should have allowed his attorney to question the officers about issues surrounding the police reports filed on the incident. Coles’ attorney wanted to ask about similarities in the wording of two officers’ reports, in support of the defense theory that the officers had worked together to come up with a similar version of events.
Associate Judge John Fisher, writing for the three-judge panel, wrote in a footnote of today's opinion that more than one-third of the sentences in the report were identical to another officers’ description of the events. The report also didn’t include events that only the officer who was shot was privy to, such as part of the initial chase. The court found Leibovitz should have allowed Coles’ attorney to ask the officers to explain the similarities.
“Mr. Coles was prohibited from eliciting evidence – the seemingly copied report – from which a jury might have concluded that the police officers had actually taken steps to conform their explanations of the shooting,” Fisher wrote. “As the only concrete, as opposed to speculative, fact indicative of such behavior, this was arguably the most powerful evidence of collusion among the officers.”
A representative of the D.C. Public Defender Service, which represented Coles on appeal, was not immediately available for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office also could not immediately be reached.
Associate Judge Phyllis Thompson and Senior Judge John Steadman also heard the case.