Paul Echols, who accused New Paltz police of brutality, cleared of main charges in trial

Defense attorney Michael Sussman and defendant Paul Echols

Paul Echols of Ellenville was found not guilty of misdemeanor resisting arrest and obstructing government administration, but guilty of the violations of harassment and disorderly conduct, in a rare trial in New Paltz town court that concluded yesterday. Echols received a $250 fine and 50 hours community service. The charges were the result of a September 9 incident outside of P&G’s in New Paltz at about 3:30 a.m. involving a fight and allegations by Echols of police brutality against the town.

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 police responded — he was punched in the face, initiating the altercation which got officers’ attention — or while in custody was one of the facts in dispute; attorneys also wrangled over whether he intentionally spit blood on any of the officers present. The prosecution case focused on Echols being combative and belligerent, while the defense framing was that the entire incident might have been defused without any arrest if handled differently.

The incident began with a fight. Echols was punched in the face that night by 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, according to assistant district attorney Matthew Jankowski, and 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. 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?”

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Defense attorney Michael Sussman’s argument was as follows: 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.

Sussman was not permitted to ask Knoth about his recent retirement, and whether it was tied to this incident. Instead, he just asked Knoth if he was aware a complaint had been brought about him to the town’s police commission, which members of that body ultimately found to be without merit.

In questioning Knoth, the attorney largely focused on the period of time when he was getting Echols into the car. As Knoth described it, after pushing Echols’ knee to get him down, he got tangled with the defendant; Echols, three-quarters across the back seat, was on his right side and Knoth’s right arm was underneath his body. Knoth testified that Echols at this time raised his head and spit blood upon the officer, and Knoth struck him with his left hand at least three times near the eye to extricate the arm and exit the vehicle. Video footage shows that two different officers opened the door on the other side to assist, and closed it again as Knoth had the situation under control. No other officer testified to see the tangling of Knoth and Echols, nor the fact that Knoth struck Echols.

At one point during the trial, Sussman 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 — which are not yet in use by Town of New Paltz officers — 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. Some in the gallery interpreted the response as an admission of a lie, while others took it as, “I don’t know.” Asked about it later, Sussman said he believed both could be true to some extent.

During his questioning, Sussman seemed to cast doubt also on how officer Ryan Bulson might have been spit upon. Based on testimony and what officers are heard saying, that should have occurred when Echols was partially in the back of a police car, and Bulson acknowledged that he could not actually see Echols at that moment, as other officers were in the way, including officer Knoth, who was in the vehicle and partially atop Echols.

Katz was required to rule on the violations, which were two charges of harassment — for the blood-spitting — and one of disorderly conduct. While Sussman argued again that there was no evidence of intent, and that the evidence made it implausible that any of the officers ever got blood on them (there being at least one clear shot of Knoth’s face showing no blood before he wiped it with a bandana), Jankowski maintained that the intent is implicit in the fact that Echols was acting in a belligerent manner. Testimony of officers recounts flailing of arms and spewing of profanities; Sussman noted no sign of the flailing on video, and that offensive speech remains protected speech. Nevertheless, Katz id find Echols guilty of disorderly conduct and for harassment in regard to Knoth; he levied a $250 fine and 50 hours community service.

Echols indicated a sense of relief at the trial’s conclusion. While his attorney “could not say definitively if there will be an appeal” of Katz’s decisions, he confirmed the likelihood of civil litigation against police.

 

 

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