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Jury: Cornelius officer untruthful but not malicious

Jury upholds one of four charges in federal lawsuit, awards far less than requested

Photo Credit: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: BETTY CAMPBELL - Miguel Monico, a Washington County Sheriffs deputy serving in Cornelius, sits in a federal courtroom where a jury unanimously agreed Monday, Sept. 8, that he falsified evidence.After deliberating Friday afternoon and Monday morning, the seven-member jury in a federal lawsuit brought by Cornelius resident Diego Mata-Gonzalez unanimously agreed that then-Cornelius Police Officer Miguel Monico and the city of Cornelius did not maliciously prosecute Mata-Gonzalez.

But they also unanimously agreed that Monico falsified evidence in the case. For that reason, they awarded Mata-Gonzalez the full $5,000 cost of his criminal defense.

Damages to compensate for his mental, physical and emotional pain and suffering however, fell far short of the $1 million Mata-Gonzalez had requested, with jurors awarding only $25,000.

The claims all required unanimous verdicts.

After U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman dismissed the court, fellow law officers immediately surrounded Monico and moved him quickly out of the courtroom, away from the press. Neither Monico, the officers, nor the defense attorneys would speak to the News-Times.

Mata-Gonzalez’ wife sat alone and somber in the back of the courtroom, while her husband’s attorneys explained the verdict to him through an interpreter.

“Diego won. He won,” said John Devlin, one of Mata-Gonzalez' attorneys. “Mr. Mata-Gonzalez is happy that justice was done in this important case.  The jury made clear that a police officer who fabricates evidence will be held accountable.”

The question of police credibility arose even befor the trial began, during jury selection last Tuesday, when Mata-Gonzalez attorney Michelle Burrows asked potential jurors,

“Do you believe a police officer would lie?”

Most answered that they believed police could lie, but also said they’d need “compelling evidence” to prove it.

“I want to believe the police officer, but I know a lot of police officers have done wrong things too,” said one woman, who was not selected for the jury.

The incident that sparked the lawsuit began when police searched Mata-Gonzalez’ home in February 2010 due to his son being the suspected shooter in an attempted homicide. Several seemingly gang-related items were found, including a bullet, a bloody sweatshirt, many items of red clothing (the color of the son’s alleged gang), red walls, statues of a saint associated with gangs, two notebooks — one with gang writing and one with financial information — a small bag of marijuana and two bags of white powder.

Prior to this search, police had no knowledge of any illegal activity on the part of Mata-Gonzalez — only on the part of his son.

At issue in the lawsuit was Monico’s claim that Mata-Gonzalez (who speaks only Spanish) told him the white powder was cocaine, that a friend had brought it to his home two years ago and that he had placed it in a drawer and forgotten about it.

Monico (Cornelius' only Spanish-speaking patrol officer at the time) did not record this “confession” in any of his notes and mentioned it only a week later when filling out a second report in order to charge Mata-Gonzalez with drug possession and trafficking, as well as with endangering a minor.

Mata-Gonzalez meanwhile, insisted he told Monico the powder was cascarilla, a soap-like substance made of crushed eggshells.

A test in the state lab ultimately found the powder harmless.

Also at issue was a field test for drug identification that Monico claims to have done at Mata-Gonzalez’ home but failed to photograph or note on reports.

Mata-Gonzalez’ defense team insisted that even the second field test, done at the Cornelius police station and documented with a few photos, never showed a positive result as described in the test-kit instructions.

Monico's false accusation led to Mata-Gonzalez’ arrest and to his two youngest sons being taken away from the home for nearly three months.

The jurors, who declined to speak with the News-Times, were persuaded that Monico falsified evidence, although they awarded Mata-Gonzalez far less in damages than he’d sought. Assuming his attorneys take a cut, it will likely be even less.

Still, the finding could have an impact on Monico’s career as a Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy now serving in Cornelius, where the police department merged with the sheriff’s office July 1.

After Mata-Gonzalez filed suit and the details of Monico’s false accusation came to light, Washington County District Attorney Bob Hermann told his attorneys not to use Monico to testify in criminal trials because his credibility could be harmed by Mata-Gonzalez' charges.

Credible testimony is crucial to the DA’s efforts to win cases and with a federal jury now unanimously agreeing that Monico falsified evidence, it’s unclear how that will affect his career.

"The outcome of this decision does not change Deputy Monico's current employment status in the county," said Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett, adding that it would be several weeks before any decision on whether Monico would appeal the jury's verdict.

District Attorney Bob Hermann did not return a call from the News-Times.

For a complete following of the trial, visit www.pamplinmedia.com/fgnt/36-news/232872-97494-complete-coverage-of-the-diego-mata-gonzales-miguel-monico-trial

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