Evacuation shortens first day of trial involving former active-duty Duluth police officer
The first day of testimony in the assault trial of Richard Jouppi was cut short Tuesday after a poison-tainted envelope threat caused the evacuation of the Pine County Courthouse.
PINE CITY — The first day of testimony in the assault trial of former active-duty Duluth police officer Richard Jouppi was cut short Tuesday after a poison-tainted envelope threat caused the evacuation of the Pine County Courthouse.
The Pine County Sheriff’s Office cleared the building about 1:45 p.m. Authorities did not say whether the incident was related to the Jouppi trial.
Chief Deputy Steve Blackwell said about 1:30 p.m. authorities were notified of six envelopes containing an unknown white powder addressed and delivered to several departments. The envelopes were isolated to two locations within the Government Center, and at 3:30 p.m. a hazardous materials team from the St. Paul Fire Department responded.
Duluth police officer Amber Peterson was on the stand when deputies abruptly halted the trial, minutes after court resumed after a lunch recess. Before the evacuation, the case was moving at a brisk pace, with attorneys presenting opening statements and three witnesses taking the stand before lunch. Jouppi’s attorney outlined his client’s defense as that of an officer whose training kicked in when he was faced with a belligerent suspect.
Jouppi’s trial is being held in Pine City because a district judge issued a change of venue request. Jouppi’s attorney, Fred Bruno, asked for the move in part because he said another courthouse would reduce the public safety risk.
Jouppi, 36, is charged with fifth-degree assault and disorderly conduct, both misdemeanors, after an on-duty incident with an intoxicated man at the Duluth Detoxification Center on Sept. 21, 2012. Jouppi is accused of assaulting 50-year-old Anthony Jon Jackson, who was in a wheelchair during the confrontation.
The prosecution and defense provided very different characterizations of Jouppi’s actions in describing the case to jurors during opening statements.
Prosecutor Shawn Reed called the case an unreasonable assault on a wheelchair-bound man.
Bruno called it appropriate use of force in response to an attack initiated by Jackson.
“This is a case that asks the question: ‘Can a police officer assault a civilian?’ ” Reed said in his opening statement.
Reed told jurors that Jackson was wearing a back brace and had limited mobility without the wheelchair. He said Jackson, about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 163 pounds was overmatched by the 5-foot, 10-inch, 205-pound Jouppi.
Video of the incident, which has been replayed on television many times, shows Jouppi throwing five punches at Jackson before grabbing him from behind and pulling him to the ground in the wheelchair, actions that Reed said were unnecessary and excessive.
“He throws not one, not two, not three, not four, but five closed-fist punches to Mr. Jackson’s face and head area while he’s seated in a wheelchair,” Reed said. “But it doesn’t stop there. He proceeds to take him down backward onto his head and shoulder area.”
Bruno acknowledged that the video isn’t pretty, but said that Jouppi’s actions were based on his extensive training. Police officers are taught to respond to force with greater force to avoid a “blow for blow” fight to subdue the suspect, Bruno said.
“You’re supposed to be one level above to control the situation,” he contended. “You don’t bring a knife to a knife fight. You bring a gun. You have to be one step ahead. ”
Jurors also got their first look at the controversial video, albeit in the form of a series of still images. Bruno slowly paged through the images to show Jackson first hitting Jouppi in the face with an open-hand slap, and Jouppi responding.
Bruno told jury members that only two of Jouppi’s punches landed, which he said is well within guidelines.
Also Tuesday, jurors heard from several witnesses, including a Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment employee who was in the room with Jouppi and Jackson at the time of the assault.
Rebecca Wells testified that she was filling out paperwork with her back turned to the men when she heard the incident begin. She said she turned around in time to see Jouppi throw four to six punches and pull Jackson to the ground in the wheelchair.
“I said, ‘Stop!’ ” she testified. “I didn’t want to see it happening.”
Jouppi is heard in the video threatening to arrest Wells if she doesn’t move back. Wells later told her supervisor to review the surveillance video of the incident, and the supervisor then contacted Duluth police.
Prosecutor Reed said he has about 12 witnesses to call. Jackson, however, will not be among them, Reed told jurors, because he could not be located.
Bruno indicated that he intends to call Jouppi to the stand to testify about his training and experience as a police officer. He also will call Jouppi’s wife and a police use-of-force expert.
Before the delay caused by the evacuation, Judge John DeSanto told jurors to expect the case to conclude today or Thursday. The jury is composed of four men and three women, including one alternate, all from Pine County.
Raeanna Marnati of the Northland’s NewsCenter contributed to this report.