UPDATED 4:20 p.m. Tuesday
Testimony began Monday in the assault trial of a Whiteville Police sergeant accused of beating an alleged drug dealer in 2015.
A Columbus County Grand Jury indicted Sgt. Aaron Herring of the Whiteville Police Department in October 2017 in charges of obstruction, failure to discharge the duties of a police officer, and simple assault of Juwarn Britt. Herring was placed on unpaid administrative leave from the department.
Britt told the court Monday that he was “hanging out” with several friends on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive when Herring and Det. Jeff Singletary approached Britt, and told him they had a warrant for his arrest. Britt, who was arrested for outstanding felony drug charges, testified that he argued with Herring after being handcuffed and seatbelted in the back of a Dodge Charger patrol car.
“He told me he was tired of me selling f—— drugs,” Britt said.
Britt – whose trial is still pending – said he and Herring began arguing, and the argument escalated. Both men referred to each other’s mothers, and Britt told the court that he told Herring he would commit a sex act on Herring’s mother’s face. Britt said that he challenged Herring to a fight, “if he would take his badge off.”
At that point, Britt said, Herring threw his badge on the dashboard of the patrol car, damaging the windshield, and reached from the driver’s seat to the right rear seat of the car and began hitting Britt.
Britt also said Herring grabbed him by the hair and threatened him while transferring Britt to the magistrate’s office for processing.
Britt said he required treatment at the emergency room for seven contusions. Defense attorney Harold “Butch” Pope noted that Britt’s visit to the Columbus Regional Emergency Room took only 79 minutes.
After being treated at the hospital, Britt said, he attempted to file a complaint at the police department. The complaint was lost once, he said, and later was delayed due to a signature. On the stand, Britt did not immediately recognize the report he said he filed against Herring.
Britt appeared before the city council in December after the incident, and requested a meeting with the City Manager and Police Chief. Britt was also mentioned during a police brutality protest this summer, when protestors chanted Herring’s name and accused him of other assaults.
In his opening statement, Pope noted that Britt had filed the federal lawsuit before seeking criminal charges against Herring. Britt’s federal civil rights lawsuit against the city was filed before Herring was indicted. That case has been dismissed. Britt testified Tuesday that he did not know who filed the lawsuit for him. He later said he was being advised by John C. Barnett of Charlotte. Britt referred to Barnett as his “lawyer,” although Barnett has said that he is not an attorney.
“So, John C. Barnett is an attorney?” Pope asked.
“He’s a — he’s a lawyer and a civil rights advocate,” Britt said. Barnett organized the march protesting Herring last year in uptown Whiteville.
The charges of assault and willful failure to discharge duties are misdemeanors, while the obstruction charge is a felony.
Pope also noted that Herring was told by his lieutenant to get the damages to the patrol car windshield repaired, and that Herring paid for the repair with a personal check.
“How is that obstruction?” Pope said.
Britt was defensive and uncooperative on cross examination Tuesday. He repeatedly told Pope “I don’t remember” “I can’t remember” and “I don’t recall” when asked about previous testimony. At one point, Britt was asked to review a court document he read before the lunch break, and refused, saying “I can’t read.”
“You could read before lunch, but you can’t read now?” an incredulous Pope asked.
“Can’t read,” Britt replied.
Britt also said he didn’t recall telephone conversations from the county detention center to his girlfriend and family members where he bragged that the Wilmington Police Internal Affairs investigator told him “just lay back and think of the dollar signs.” Britt also said he didn’t recall saying he would be exonerated of his pending drug charges after filing complaints against Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser.
Sasser ordered Britt’s bond increased after Britt refused to take a court-ordered urine test in the pending trial on drug charges. Britt was jailed for several weeks before posting bond. He made multiple telephone calls to family, his girlfriend and another male individual during that time. Recordings of those conversations were entered into evidence Tuesday.
In one of the jailhouse telephone calls, Britt gets upset with a female when she is reluctant to take “five grams” of a substance to another individual, who would give her $100, out of which she would give him $15.
“Five grams of what?” Pope asked. “Drugs?”
“Detergent,” Britt said. “Laundry detergent, for washing cars.”
Pope then asked Britt to describe “how much is a gram of laundry detergent?”
“I don’t remember,” Britt said.
“Well, is it a bucket? A 55-gallon drum?” Pope replied. Britt wiped his face and glared at Herring.
“It’s like a box, a bucket.”
“How big is it?” Pope asked.
“I don’t remember,” Britt said.
Pope hammered on Britt’s motivation for the charges, as well as what Britt does for a living.
“This is all about the paycheck, isn’t it, Mr. Britt?” Pope asked him at one point. Britt said he is on disability, but fixes engines and does odd jobs in the community for free. He said he did not recall who gave him money for supplies, who he worked for, or whether he was ever paid for work he did for others.
Surveillance video of Britt’s arrest, interview and processing shows Britt asking Singletary to help him against Herring.
“I’ll split the money with you, fifty-fifty,” Britt said on the video.
Pope asked what Britt meant by “splitting the money.”
“I thought I would get rewarded for telling the truth about what Aaron did to me,” Britt said. Pope also asked what motivated Britt to file the federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, as well as another suit against Sasser and the sheriff’s office for “false imprisonment” after he refused the drug test.
“It was for the money, wasn’t it?” Pope asked.
“No,” Britt said.
Herring is defended by Pope and Mike McGuinness, an Elizabethtown attorney specializing in defending law enforcement officers. Assistant District Attorney Lillian Salcines-Bright of Wilmington is prosecuting the case. Rutherford County Superior Court Judge Nance B. Long is presiding. The District Attorney’s office asked for an outside prosecutor to investigate and try the case “out of an abundance of caution,” District Attorney Jon David said.