Do you agree with the verdict in the trial of Sgt. Jeff Cotton
HOUSTON— Jurors returned a not guilty verdict Tuesday in the trial of Bellaire police Sgt. Jeff Cotton.
Cotton was on trial for aggravated assault by a public servant for the 2008 shooting of Robbie Tolan.
"I’m just relieved that it’s over and ready to go back to work," Cotton said outside the courtroom.
The Tolan family released a written statement that said:
"We are obviously disappointed that the jury did not convict Jeffrey Cotton. While we respectfully disagree with the decision they came to, we thank the jury for its service."
The family now plans to file a lawsuit against Cotton in federal court.
"Cotton’s criminal trial was only the first step in seeing that some measure of justice is done in Bellaire," the Tolan family said. "The fight now moves to federal court. We remain hopeful that our family may still find justice."
Cotton, a 10-year veteran officer, shot Robbie Tolan outside Tolan’s home in the 800 block of Woodstock in Bellaire on New Year's Eve. Cotton and another officer mistakenly thought the car Tolan and his cousin were in was stolen. The other officer typed in one wrong number from the license tag and it came back as a stolen vehicle that happened to be the same make, model and color that Tolan was driving.
In closing arguments Tuesday morning, defense attorneys told jurors they have an awesome responsibility.
"They are asking that you change his title to Sgt. Cotton to convicted felon Cotton," said defense attorney Paul Aman.
Cotton was on the scene for 32 seconds before he shot Tolan. Bellaire Police Officer John Edwards made the initial stop in front of the Tolan home. He called for backup after Edwards testified that he lost control of the scene.
"Cotton knew there was a stolen car and there were two auto theft suspects out of the car and he needs help, that’s all he knows," Aman told jurors.
Earlier in the trial, Cotton testified that Tolan did not follow commands. He was in fear for his life because he thought Tolan had a gun.
"Robbie Tolan was lying face down and he jumps up quickly and turns making a motion," said Aman. "He is bringing his hands across the area of his waistband."
Cotton fired three shots. One of the bullets hit Tolan in the chest.
"He is going to carry Cotton’s bullet in his liver for the rest of his life," said prosecutor Clint Greenwood.
In closing, Greenwood told jurors their decision will have an impact not only on the people directly involved with this case.
"It will send reverberations through the community," he said.
Greenwood told the jury that prosecutors have proven every element of their case. He said Cotton was reckless in his actions.
Greenwood said Tolan was not a threat.
"It’s not a comedy, it’s a tragedy of errors," said Greenwood. "They don’t run, they don’t threaten him, they argue with him."
Greenwood said while defense attorneys contend this is a case of an officer defending himself, it’s not.
"At the end of the day an unarmed man is shot by a Bellaire police officer," said Greenwood.
The Tolan family said they believe the City of Bellaire is partly to blame for what happened.
"The city has not changed its policy of racial profiling. Indeed, the city – from Mayor Cindy Siegel on down – has dug in its heels in defense of the unconstitutional practices which very nearly led to Robbie’s death at the hands of Jeffrey Cotton," the Tolans said in a statement.
The city of Bellaire defended itself in a statement released after the verdict:
"There have been numerous irresponsible allegations against the City of Bellaire and its officers regarding the alleged role of race in connection with this matter but it is now clear, based on the actual – and undisputed – evidence presented in the trial that there is absolutely no basis for the assertion that the race of either the responding officers or the Tolan family played any role in this incident."
If convicted, Cotton could have faced up to life in prison.