On January 10, 2010, 18-year-old Kwadir Felton was shot in the face and permanently blinded by Jersey City, N.J., Police Sergeant Thomas McVicar. Yet it is Felton who faces decades in prison.
McVicar insists he was forced to open fire because Felton tried to rob him at gunpoint. Felton, now 22, vehemently denies having been armed.
At his trial in November, Felton testified that he had just left a baby shower and was on his way to his girlfriend's house when he heard someone say, "Yo, you little black mother fucker, you better get the fuck down before I blow your fucking brains out."
"There's no reason to have a weapon on me," Felton told the courtroom. "That's not me. I was raised better than that."
There is evidence to suggest Felton is telling the truth. PQ His fingerprints and DNA were nowhere to be found on the weapon in question, the police version of events is full of holes and discrepancies at every turn, and witnesses have been harassed into silence by authorities.
But this wasn't enough to sway the jury, which found Felton guilty on all counts, including aggravated assault of an officer, unlawful possession of a handgun and conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.
Upon hearing the verdict, Felton's mother, 51-year-old Dawn "Renee" Felton, who was recovering from open heart surgery, fell to the floor weeping and was quickly dragged out of the courtroom.
Felton broke down as well, sobbing and shouting at an officer, "I don't understand! You didn't have to shoot me in the head for no reason! You trying to charge me with something I didn't do!"
His fingerprints and DNA were nowhere to be found on the weapon in question, the police version of events is full of holes and discrepancies at every turn, and witnesses have been harassed into silence by authorities.
Brooke Barnett, Felton's attorney, has since filed several motions for a new trial, citing "prosecutorial misconduct" and calling the state's evidence against Felton "absolutely and unequivocally contradicted." All motions thus far have been denied with one motion still pending that accuses a juror of having a conflict of interest.
Felton has yet to be sentenced, but prosecutor, Ray Mateo, said at trial that he faces up to 30 years in prison with 15-year parole eligibility.
According to McVicar, he was alone inside his vehicle doing undercover surveillance in relation to the drug conspiracy investigation when Felton tried to rob him at gunpoint, forcing him to open fire through the closed car window, striking Felton in the face.
However it remains unclear whether McVicar was on or off duty that night. "There was no physical evidence showing he worked that day. There was no timesheet. There was no dispatch," Barnett told Truthout.
McVicar was driving his personal vehicle, a red Toyota Tacoma, which happened to be covered in bumper stickers celebrating gun ownership and conservative politics, "things that we felt went to his state of mind and character," said Barnett. But the judge would not allow it.
"I'M THE GOD-FEARING, GUN-TOTING, FLAG-WAVING CONSERVATIVE YOU WERE WARNED ABOUT," says one sticker.
Even more damning is that McVicar did not immediately report the shooting. Instead, he reported that shots were fired in a different location, where there had been no shooting. Between 20 to 30 minutes passed before McVicar reported that Felton had been shot, during which time Felton received no medical attention. "They did not think that this kid was going to live," said Barnett. And perhaps they did not want him to.
Also called into question is McVicar's claim that he shot Felton with his .45 caliber service weapon. Chase Blanchard, the defense's forensic pathologist, testified as an expert witness that it would have been impossible for Felton to survive a shot to the head with a .45 caliber with hollow point bullets at close range. Even though the bullet wound to Felton's head was a through and through wound, meaning it entered one end and exited the other, the bullet was never recovered from the scene, leaving more questions than answers.
"I've never seen this reaction of people on the streets refusing to be involved, not out of fear of retaliation from criminals, but from fear of retaliation from the cops."
Furthermore, Blanchard argued that the absence of "dicing injuries" from shattered glass to Felton's hands and face suggests he was not shot through a closed car window, as McVicar alleged.
For many in the neighborhood, McVicar's behavior did not come as a surprise given his reputation as a brutalizer. But according to Barnett, people in the community were scared to speak publicly about their violent encounters with McVicar.
"I've never seen this reaction of people on the streets refusing to be involved, not out of fear of retaliation from criminals, but from fear of retaliation from the cops," Barnett told Truthout.
The stories of McVicar's brutality continued to pour in even after the trial. "Right after the verdict came out, someone reached out to me who literally moved to Atlanta because he had been beaten so badly by [McVicar]," said Barnett. "This is a cowboy cop."
With Barnett's attempts to obtain McVicar's internal records rejected and his victims too scared to come forward, McVicar's violent streak was shielded from the jury.
Officer Can't Get Story Straight
Jersey City police sergeant Joseph Sarao, allegedly the first officer to respond to the scene of Kwadir's shooting, offered several different versions of how the gun Felton was allegedly armed with was handled, each one more contradictory than the next.
In a statement to the Shooting Response Team shortly after the shooting, Sarao said he arrived at the scene to find Felton laying on the cement with a gunshot wound to the head and a gun resting beside his calf. "I decided not to move the gun at this time to try to preserve the crime scene," he explained.
But Sarao offered a significantly altered story at trial.
According to a transcript of Sarao's testimony provided to Truthout by Barnett, Sarao told the jury that he arrived at the scene to find the gun lying beside Felton's bloodied head rather than his calf. He added that he dragged the weapon with his foot several feet until it was next to Felton's thigh.
"[T]he gun was right near his head. He was still twitching, and I wasn't sure if he was still a threat, so I, with my foot, dragged it away from him at least three or four feet," Sarao told the courtroom.
Barnett told Truthout that this discrepancy calls into question why there were no traces of Felton's DNA found on the gun, which would surely have been bloodied had it been next to Felton's head, which was pooling blood.
"He saw what happened, but the cops harassed this man so much, he moved away twice."
Sarao also told the jury that an unnamed officer under his direction bagged the weapon and took it to police headquarters for storage without registering it as evidence and then brought it back two hours later to be photographed at the crime scene. But during cross-examination, Sarao again changed his story, denying that the gun had ever left the scene.
Witness Harassed Into Silence
A couple of months after her son was shot, Renee told Truthout that she spoke with a man who witnessed the aftermath of the shooting, which occurred just outside of his house.
"He saw what happened, but the cops harassed this man so much, he moved away twice," said Renee.
The man heard a noise, presumably the gunshot, and went outside to check things out.
"He said he seen Kwadir laying on ground but he said he seen no gun laying by Kwadir's body," said Renee.
"He said there were two cops in the car. One cop got out on passenger side, the other cop got out on driver's side. He said when all the cops was coming there were no sirens, no flashing lights. He said it was just so quiet like they didn't really want too much attention."
"He said when the cop got out that shot Kwadir, he seen the cop kicking Kwadir's right leg, and he seen his left leg shake. And then he said Kwadir sat up and the cop pushed him back down and started searching him."
"He said if we need him for anything he would not have a problem going to court to testify."
But months later, when Renee paid him a visit, she learned from neighbors that he moved away. By the time Barnett managed to track him down, the witness changed his story. He moved a second time after state authorities located him.
The man ended up testifying at trial but left out the details that were most damaging to the officers.
"There is no cooperation from anybody," said Barnett. "Even post-verdict, anybody that my detectives tried to talk to would not leave their phone number. They don't want to be involved for fear of retaliation, not from the streets, but from the police department."
"It's Been Hell"
Felton said at his trial that after losing his eyesight, he lost the will to live and on several occasions tried to kill himself.
"(Going blind) took life from me," he told the jury. "If I couldn't see, I didn't want to live."
It was a rough road for Renee, as well. "The last four years has been the worst years of my life," she told Truthout. "It's been hell."
Renee rushed to the hospital when she learned Felton had been shot, but was prevented from seeing him. All she knew was that her son had been arrested while laying unconscious and handcuffed to a hospital bed in the ICU, and no one would tell her why.
Three days later, with his brain still hemorrhaging, the authorities moved Felton to a prison hospital and bail was set at half a million dollars.
"They didn't even give him time to heal," said Renee. "If we didn't get him out, he would've died in jail."
Felton's court-appointed lawyer got the bail reduced to $200,000. With help from a local pastor, friends and family, Renee raised the $4,000 needed to secure a bail bond and Felton was released. But a week later, he was arrested again, this time on drug conspiracy charges. Though he was wheelchair-bound and blind, bail was set at $125,000.
The drug conspiracy charge was related to a wiretap investigation that had little to do with Felton. Of some 900 phone recordings, Felton was in a handful of them. "Kwadir did not become relevant to their conspiracy until he was shot by a police officer," explained Barnett. PQ "They used the drug evidence to really dirty him up to lose the sympathy of the public."
Shortly after Felton's arrest, Renee was kicked out of Jersey City public housing. She soon lost her job and had to move in with her daughter, where she became Felton's full time caretaker.
"I had to do basically everything for him," said Renee.
In addition to a life-altering physical disability to contend with, Felton was, and still is, emotionally traumatized.
The criminal justice system has a penchant for punishing victims of police violence who are lucky enough to survive.
"You have no idea how many times I went to the psych ward," said Renee. "He felt because he couldn't see no more, there was no purpose for him living. I had to hide all the knives in the house. I had to hide all the medication."
"It took him almost three years to accept he was blind," said Renee. But eventually Felton went back to school and earned the high school diploma he would have received the year he was shot.
At his trial, Felton told the jury that walking in last June's Snyder High School graduation ceremony was "one of the greatest feelings in the world," adding that he wants to pursue higher education so he can teach the blind.
"I want to attend college and get my degree, get my master's degree in education and communication and teach braille," he said. "I want to work for the commission of the blind."
But his dreams have once again been shattered.
As he awaits sentencing, Felton, who suffers seizures and constant physical pain, is locked up at Hudson County Jail where he is unable to access the medical services he desperately needs.
"I speak to Kwadir every day," said Renee. "He's just sitting in jail; he can't see, and he's on anti-depressant medicine."
On top of blinding him, the shot to his head shattered his entire sinus cavity and left a cyst on the right side of his brain, leaving him in constant pain. According to Renee, doctors have determined that his right eye will need to be removed at some point.
Felton is not alone. The criminal justice system has a penchant for punishing victims of police violence who are lucky enough to survive.
Leon Ford Jr. was just 19 years old when he was paralyzed by Pittsburgh police who pulled him over in 2012. Today he is facing 20 years in prison for allegedly assaulting the officers who paralyzed him.
"[Jersey City authorities] just want to bury it, because the amount of money that this kid and his family would have recovered would have been astronomical."
Lamont Earl Dukes, 30, was trying to surrender to the St. Louis police officer who was chasing him when he was shot him twice last July. The next day police visited Dukes in his hospital bed to charge him with "resisting arrest."
Andre Fiorentino, a 32-year-old black man from Coatesville, Pennsylvania, nearly died when he was shot several times by police outside his home in November. He has since been charged with attempted murder of the officers who say he shot at them twice. Though Fiorentino denies having been armed, authorities spent no longer than 24 hours investigating the shooting before siding with police.
The overzealous prosecution of Kwadir Felton seems to fit this pattern.
Not satisfied with robbing Felton of his eyesight, the state of New Jersey appears determined to take the next several years of his life as well.
"[Jersey City authorities] just want to bury it," said Barnett. "because the amount of money that this kid and his family would have recovered would have been astronomical."
Renee doesn't care about the potential payout. She just wants justice for her son. "This cop needs to be off the street because he goes around shooting our babies for no reason," she said. "I'm fighting for Kwadir's freedom, and I'm fighting for justice."