A West Virginia Sheriff was recently found guilty of excessive use of force to deprive a suspect of rights after a trial that featured a use of force expert witness called by the defendant’s legal team. Although the defense was unsuccessful, the use of a police expert is a necessary element to trials involving police abuses as jurors may be unfamiliar with the standards of practice and limits of police authority.
West Virginia Sheriff Convicted of Excessive Force
Mark Cowden of the Hancock County Sheriff Department was convicted last month of excessive force and “Deprivation of Rights” by a federal jury in West Virginia. Prosecutors accused Cowden of abusing an arrestee after video surveillance captured the sheriff forcing Ryan Hambrick into a brick wall before punching the suspect in the back of the head with a closed-fist. According to prosecutors, Cowden’s actions were excessive and in violation of the law.
Defense attorneys responded to the allegations of unlawful use of force by arguing that Cowden was being targeted by political enemies and did not take unlawful action against the suspect. Cowden, who was up for political office this year, claimed that the use of force prosecution was designed to disrupt his campaign and had no basis in fact. According to his defense team, he used appropriate force against a suspect who had a violent history and who was resisting authority at the time of the incident. In an effort to bolster the defense, Cowden’s attorneys called a use of force expert to testify that he acted in accordance with police standards.
Use of Force Expert Testifies in Sheriff’s Criminal Trial
Timothy A. Dimoff, a national security law enforcement consultant and police expert witness, took the stand in Mark Cowden’s trial to explain to jurors that the sheriff used appropriate force against a drunk driving suspect who was not cooperating with authority. After watching the prosecution’s surveillance footage, Dimoff told jurors, “I don’t see repetitive abuse of force. I don’t see (Cowden) losing his cool. I see control techniques. I see a prisoner who is not cooperating.” Dimoff also told jurors that Hambrick displayed signs of aggression towards Cowden, including use of his head to engage in fighting techniques while the sheriff was attempting to book him.
Cowden’s defense team also called to the stand a medical expert in blunt-force trauma to testify that the incident between the sheriff and Hambrick did not cause serious injury. Dr. Jack E. Riggs, a neurologist from West Virginia University who has experience in combat hospitals, explained to jurors that the defendant could not have caused Hambrick’s injuries based on the nature of the wounds. According to Riggs, the angle at which Cowden hit Hambrick did not align with physical signs of injury, and the nosebleed the suspect suffered was likely an aggravated injury suffered during arrest. Hambrick had been involved in a physical altercation with an officer during the arrest which had caused the injuries he suffered.
Taken together, the two expert witnesses called by Cowden’s defense team were used to justify the sheriff’s action by explaining to jurors it was not outside department standards for uncooperative arrestees, and it did not cause severe injury.
West Virginia Sheriff Convicted in Use of Force Trial
Despite testimony from defense experts on police use of force and blunt force trauma, Lt. Sheriff Mark Cowden was convicted for using excessive force to detain Ryan Hambrick. Cowden has not yet been sentenced, but faces a possible 10-year prison term for his actions. Cowden’s name is still on the Hancock County election ballot. Although his federal conviction makes him ineligible for the role of Sheriff, he has maintained his innocence and is asking residents to vote for him anyway.
Mark Cowden’s case serves as another example of how police training and use of force experts are used in criminal trials of police officers who take violent action against arrestees or suspects. Although Cowden was convicted anyway, his defense team’s use of expert witnesses provided the best possible argument that he was acting in accordance with department procedures. Whether or not that influences sentencing remains to be seen.