Mar 9, 2017
NOWATA — A jury acquitted a twice-fired Owasso police lieutenant Wednesday of felony and misdemeanor charges alleging that he used excessive force after a high-speed pursuit in 2015.
The 12-member jury unanimously concluded after about three hours of deliberation Wednesday afternoon that Michael Denton was not guilty of assault and battery with a deadly weapon or reckless conduct with a firearm.
Denton struck Cody Mathews with a shotgun multiple times after a pursuit on June 14, 2015, prosecutors said, and endangered fellow officers while wielding the firearm.
The assault and battery charge, a felony, was the more severe allegation and could have carried a punishment of up to life in prison had Denton been convicted.
Defense attorney Patrick Hunt argued that the use of force was justified because circumstances during Mathews’ arrest could have led to severe injuries or death for Denton or other officers, especially considering that Mathews had demonstrated “complete contempt for innocent life” during the chase.
After hearing the verdict, Denton put his right hand over his heart as if in relief.
“I was just telling the jury thank you,” he told reporters after court adjourned. “Like I said, if I have to every time that I’m in a violent encounter, if I have to stand in front of 12 law-abiding, taxpaying citizens and explain why I did what I did, I will do that.
“I’d rather do that than attend the funeral of a police officer or citizen.”
Pending the outcome of arbitration between Denton and the city of Owasso, Denton said he “absolutely” wants to return to work with the Police Department. He was fired March 17, 2016, following an internal investigation into his actions in Mathews’ arrest.
“I’ve got 25 years, and I plan on doing at least 35, maybe 40,” Denton said.
The city of Owasso also fired Denton in 2011 for a violation of Owasso’s use-of-force policy in another incident, but he was reinstated by an arbitrator. In that case, he was accused of using excessive force against a Collinsville man while arresting him on a public intoxication complaint.
The Police Department challenged Denton’s reinstatement, which the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals upheld in April 2014. Denton was paid more than $283,000 in back pay, more than $47,000 in overtime pay and nearly $36,000 in interest.
The Collinsville man filed a federal lawsuit against the city and received $75,000 in a settlement in June 2015, court records show.
During this week’s trial, District Attorney Kevin Buchanan contended that Denton used unnecessary and excessive force by thrusting the barrel of his shotgun through a broken window to strike Mathews multiple times, and continued to hit him with the butt of the shotgun after Mathews was on the ground with another officer on his back.
“I respect the jury’s verdict,” Buchanan said Wednesday evening.
Owasso Police Chief Scott Chambless issued a statement on the department’s Facebook page, standing by his decision to fire Denton.
“I affirm my respect for the rule of law and judicial process,” Chambless wrote. “The burden of proof in a criminal trial is the highest of any judicial process, as it should be.
“The outcome of the trial in no way diminishes my belief that the decisions made by Mr. Denton are inconsistent with Owasso Police Department policies and the department’s core values,” he said.
Jurors spent about two hours Wednesday listening to closing arguments from Buchanan and Hunt.
Buchanan emphasized during his closing argument that Denton violated the department’s policies and procedures, as well as standards set by the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training. Denton did not use his shotgun appropriately, he said.
The prosecutor also noted that no other officers felt the need to use a firearm to strike Mathews — “just the one guy who couldn’t control his anger” and wanted to “get his licks in.”
“It doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing when you commit a crime,” Buchanan said, referring to the fact Denton was an on-duty uniformed police officer.
But Hunt said Denton is well-trained with his shotgun and never would have let it accidentally discharge as he struck Mathews to keep him from retrieving a knife that he dropped onto the truck’s floor when another officer deployed a Taser on him. He dubbed the apprehension as “frightening” and “tense,” and he reiterated how dangerous a person with a knife can be.
Denton and the others had no idea whether Mathews had managed to regain control of the knife as he resisted arrest on the ground or whether Mathews had a handgun hidden on him, Hunt said.
Hunt said a “sad irony” of the case is that Denton would have been labeled a coward had he retreated from the danger but wouldn’t face legal trouble.
“If Mike Denton had ignored his oath, he wouldn’t be charged with these crimes,” Hunt said.
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