The trial of Ellenville resident Paul Echols, delayed earlier this year by snow, was begun by Justice Jonathan Katz on May 8. Echols is charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and other crimes stemming from a September 9 incident outside of P&G’s in New Paltz at about 3:30 a.m. Accounts differ, but by the end of that encounter Echols had a broken jaw and some police officers were reportedly covered in blood, which they say was spit on them by the defendant. Whether Echols’ jaw was broken prior to when the police responded — he was punched in the face, initiating the altercation which got officers’ attention — or while in custody is one of the facts in dispute. The prosecution case has thus far focused on Echols being combative and belligerent, while the defense framing is that the entire incident might have been defused without any arrest if handled differently.
Plans to hold a rally in Echols’ support prior to the trial starting did result in a number of people showing up, and while no formal protest occurred there remained more than a dozen people in the gallery watching the case unfold.
Testimony by responding officers, their written reports and video footage of the incident have all been submitted into evidence. Echols was punched in the face that night by one Nicholas Rosario, who was subsequently knocked unconscious in retaliation by Echols’ friend Kelly Sherman. Police responded at that point, tending to Rosario and arresting Sherman. Echols attempted to intervene on behalf of his friend, and according to assistant district attorney Matthew Jankowski, it “turned into a melee” when he got aggressive. Three officers were needed to handcuff Echols, and they maintain that he struggled and resisted being put into the back of a cruiser. New Paltz police officer Robert Knoth purportedly became entangled with Echols in the back seat, and admits to striking Echols three times in the face at that time. Knoth is also one of the officers who says blood was spat upon him by the defendant; he asserts that Echols asked, “How’s that blood taste?”
Defense attorney Michael Sussman sees a different way to interpret events: Echols, the original injured party, was ignored by officers until he made that impossible. Rosario, the white man who struck him, was tended to but not charged. Sherman, coming to Echols’ aid, was arrested for hitting Rosario. No one tried to look at Echols’ injuries at that time. According to Sussman, this is why Echols draws the conclusion that a racial motivation is at work. The attorney characterized the entire incident as a “tragic over-response” by officers, and he set out to pick apart their procedures and cast doubt upon their credibility.
At one point during the trial, he questioned Adam Montfort, a sheriff’s deputy who was on the scene and also says he got spat blood upon him. Montfort was wearing a body camera — not yet in use by the Town of New Paltz Police Department — which show there were two officers between him and Echols when Montfort remarked, “I got it all over me, too.” Sussman asked Montfort how Echols might have gotten blood on the deputy when the defendant wasn’t even visible to the officer. “You got me,” Montfort replied.
Jury trials are uncommon in the town court; most charges for which a jury is needed are heard in either county or supreme court instead. That Jankowski is pursuing a trial in this case is seen as remarkable by observers. The jury is comprised of six members with two alternates. These were drawn from a pool of 60 county residents. Only two of those 60 were African American; one of those two was empaneled. Sussman remarked outside the courthouse that he believed the jurors selected could be fair and impartial.
The trial was interrupted Wednesday, May 8 by a medical emergency, and not resumed until Friday, May 10. Sussman, who had complained of back pain prior to the proceedings beginning, was afflicted so severely that afternoon he had to be transported from the courthouse by ambulance. It will likely be concluded early this week.