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Jury finds ex-officer not guilty of assaulting Black man

Nick Youngson
Alpha Stock Images

A jury has acquitted a fired South Carolina police officer of assaulting a Black man during a videotaped 2021 traffic stop the ex-officer later apologized for.

The six-person jury Wednesday found former Rock Hill police investigator Jonathan Moreno not guilty of the misdemeanor battery and assault of Travis Price at a June 2021 traffic stop after a day of deliberation in the three-day trial, news outlets reported.

Moreno told reporters after the verdict he was not sure if he would return to policing and acknowledged the high-profile incident had divided the community.

"I believe one day Travis and I can come together," Moreno said.

The incident roiled Rock Hill after a bystander posted cellphone video to Facebook of Moreno, who is Hispanic, and other officers wrestling with Price and his brother and forcing them to the ground, prompting several days of protests outside the city police station.

Two weeks later, officials held a news conference to absolve Price of wrongdoing and announce they were firing and charging Moreno, who showed up to publicly apologize to Price: "I'm here to be held accountable for my actions," he said then.

But Moreno, 35, and his attorneys insisted at trial that the seasoned officer was just doing his job when outside the gas station where police were arresting Price's brother during a drug operation.

During cross-examination Tuesday, the ex-officer accused police and prosecutors of scapegoating him in a public relations move: "You put me on a press conference and made me out to be a person that I'm not," Moreno told 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett.

Brackett maintained Moreno used excessive force by pushing Price into the ground instead of de-escalating the situation. The solicitor said Moreno lied about the incident in a police report, contrasting the report and the video during Moreno's cross-examination. Brackett added that Moreno then left Price in jail overnight on a hindering police charge prosecutors later dropped.

"He knew that Travis didn't belong in jail and he did nothing, nothing to get him out," Brackett told jurors. "That's disgusting."

Body camera and surveillance videos show Moreno in plain clothes approaching Price outside a gas station. Clips depict Moreno grabbing Price by the chest and pushing him into a nearby fuel tank before officers bring Price to the ground. Pinning Price down, Moreno yells at Price to fight with him and threatens Price with a nearby police dog: "It's just you and me, baby," Moreno says.

"That day, I was roughhoused and treated unfairly for no reason," Price testified Monday.

Price said he was heading home that day when he saw police arresting his brother at the gas station along the way. Price then stopped and got permission from officers to take his brother's jewelry and sunglasses.

Moreno, who was searching the brother's car as Price was receiving the belongings, ignored Price's attempts to explain his presence at the scene and the other officers calling Moreno's name, prosecutors said.

But Moreno's attorneys argued context was important: the then-officer was in a "high crime" area and had just confiscated marijuana and a gun from the brother's car. They said Price's brother was out on bond and had a criminal record, was resisting arrest and helped create a scene of chaos to which Moreno reacted.

Moreno testified he wanted to secure the scene and ensure the safety of his fellow officers based on limited information he had. He said some of the physical force and shouting he directed at Price was to try to ensure the physically smaller officer had control of the larger man.

In a statement, Price's attorney, Justin Bamberg, said Price was disappointed by the verdict but respected the jury process. Of the six jurors, there was one man and five women, one of whom was Black.

"Given the high-profile nature of this incident, we can only imagine what might happen on a day-to-day basis with the Rock Hill Police Department regarding the truthfulness of their reports and record keeping," Bamberg said. "Our concern is that other citizens don't suffer the same mistreatment that Travis Price endured."

Among the trial's spectators was U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman, who Price is suing along with the city of Rock Hill, for defamation in federal court.