At a preliminary hearing on Monday, a Philadelphia judge dismissed charges against two former SEPTA Transit Police officers who stood accused of beating an intoxicated man on the platform of the Frankford El station late last year.
The ruling hinged upon controversial video footage of the incident. Both transit police investigators and city prosecutors say it showed clear evidence of excessive force.
But Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon said the evidence wasn’t sufficient to warrant a trial against against former Officers Johnathan Lanciano and David Simcox, both 29, who faced charges of reckless endangerment, simple assault and falsifying police reports.
Around midnight one evening last December, Matthew Townsend, a 29-year-old barista from Frankford, was getting off the El on his way home when he dropped his glasses onto the tracks below. He admitted he’d drank “far too many,” and acknowledged he shouldn’t have attempted to retrieve his spectacles. But when he climbed back onto the platform, he was met by five SEPTA officers, including Simcox and Lanciano, and a beating ensued. Townsend ended up in the hospital with a concussion, multiple lacerations and a broken nose.
Officers then arrested Townsend and alleged that he punched one of them in the face. Prosecutors dropped those charges after reviewing video of the incident.
In February, Lanciano and Simcox had their badges stripped following an internal affairs investigation. In April, District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office filed a series of charges against the duo. Court documents stated that officers used excessive force, despite no sign of weapon or threat from Townsend.
But disagreements abounded over the series of events, which were depicted in the footage from the officers’ body cameras as well as SEPTA surveillance cameras on the platform.
The footage has still not been released to the public or been shown to members of the media.
Said DA spokesperson Ben Waxman: “We believe it was very clear and it showed a crime was committed.”
Said Townsend, the victim: “To say I was physically intoxicated is very nice way of putting it, but they violently assaulted me. The video is pretty brutal, to be frank.”
Said Lou Mincarelli, a defense attorney for Simcox: “When you slow it down frame by frame, you can see Mr. Townsend’s fist or hand come into contact with Officer Lanciano’s face, and you can see the officer’s head snap back, and at that point in time any response from officers was appropriate.”
Monday’s hearing also brought testimony from emergency room physicians as well as SEPTA Transit internal affairs investigators.
One witness was notably absent from the courtroom: the victim himself.
While subpoenaing witnesses ahead of scheduled court dates is standard practice, Townsend did not receive a summons to appear until the day of the hearing.
“I had no idea until an hour before the hearing,” he told Billy Penn. “I couldn’t get out of work.”
Waxman said Townsend’s subpoena for the Monday hearing was sent out late due to an “administrative error.” A power outage in Center City on Aug. 7 forced the DA’s office to close for two days, at which time the summons should have been sent out, Waxman said, adding that ADA Tracy Tripp, the prosecutor assigned to the case, called Townsend on the morning of the hearing.
The top prosecutor’s office said it is “not unusual” for a complainant to miss a preliminary hearing in cases where video is the critical evidence in the case — and that footage of the alleged beatdown should have been sufficient to warrant a jury trial.
“There was absolutely enough evidence to move forward,” Waxman said.
Townsend questions whether other testimony, which he was not present to refute, had an impact on the decision.
The emergency room doctor who tended to Townsend’s injuries at a Frankford hospital that evening told the court that the victim had “admitted that he punched an officer,” Mincarelli said.
Briefed on the doctor’s testimony, Townsend said that was “truly a misinterpretation of my words” on the evening of the assault. Townsend recalls beginning to defend himself from the oncoming men until he realized they were cops, at which point he surrendered and sustained numerous blows to the head and torso. “I distinctly remember trying to be friendly with the police that escorted me to the ER,” he added.
SEPTA Transit Police Chief Thomas Nestel declined to comment.
The Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge 109 praised the judge’s ruling and said union arbitration is already working to reinstate the officers on the force.
“These officers were fired unjustly, ” said union president Omari Bervine. “That’s what the [preliminary hearing] is for — to determine whether there’s enough evidence for a full trial. Now they’ve been vindicated.”
Depending on Krasner, it may be too early to celebrate.
The prosecutor’s office has the option to refile the charges against the two officers, although no decision has been made yet, Waxman said.
This is not the only case Krasner’s office has sought against allegedly violent officers. He campaigned on rooting out “bad apples” from the city police. In early March, his office charged former Philadelphia Police Officer James Yeager for bodyslamming a handcuffed man during an arrest in Kensington last year, after cell phone video of the incident went viral. Yeager’s preliminary hearing in that case is scheduled for this month.
Townsend is unsure how he would feel about refiling charges. A Philadelphia native, this was not his first of run-ins with the police gone sour. But when initially approached by prosecutors about the possible case, he decided to “not let bygones be bygones.”
“I’m not against all of SEPTA police in this case — just these officers,” Townsend said. “This has been a huge ordeal that has had a huge impact on my life.”