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D.C. officers convicted of murder, obstruction in moped rider’s death

Two D.C. police officers were convicted Wednesday in connection with a fatal police chase in 2020 that inflamed community tensions and sparked destructive civil unrest outside a city police station.

A jury found Officer Terence Sutton guilty of second-degree murder, obstruction and conspiracy, and Lt. Andrew Zabavsky – who was not charged directly in the death – guilty of obstruction and conspiracy.

The three-minute pursuit on Oct. 23, 2020, began at 10:08 p.m. when Sutton, driving an unmarked car with three other plainclothes officers as passengers, attempted to stop a moped ridden by 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown in the Brightwood Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington. The chase, along a circuitous route in a four-block area, ended when the moped collided with an SUV, and Hylton-Brown suffered fatal head injuries.

At a time of raw racial discord nationwide following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the crowd that massed outside the 4th District station four nights after the crash was incensed by what it perceived as fatal police misconduct against a young Black man. Protesters broke windows of the station, smashed police cars and shouted epithets at officers clad in riot gear, who countered with pepper pellets and stun grenades.

The verdicts Wednesday came after five days of deliberations. Zabavsky remained motionless as they were read; Sutton lowered his head.

Karen Hylton, Karon Hylton-Brown’s mother, stood up and began screaming obscenities at the officers in the courtroom, as a judge ordered her removed.

“Out! Out! Out!” he bellowed from the bench.

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While Sutton conducted the chase, Zabavsky drove a marked police vehicle on parallel streets, trying to get ahead of the moped rider and cut him off, authorities said. Neither officer testified in the trial.

The trial began with opening statements on Oct. 25 and continued through nearly two months of testimony — much of it from experts on D.C. police regulations on vehicular pursuits and the myriad rules for how officers should act toward people suspected of wrongdoing. Jurors were left to answer a few key questions.

Did Sutton violate police policy by chasing Hylton-Brown and, in a prosecutor’s words, did he carry out the pursuit with “a conscious disregard of extreme danger of death or serious bodily injury” to the moped rider? The allegation that Sutton caused Hylton-Brown’s death through illegal recklessness was the basis for the second-degree murder charge against him.

“That man right there,” Prosecutor Ahmed M. Baset told jurors at the start of the trial, gesturing to Sutton at the defendants’ table. “He murdered Karon Hylton-Brown. … He did it with his police car.”

But J. Michael Hannon, Sutton’s defense attorney, argued that the chase was justified because officers had reason to believe that Hylton-Brown was up to no good that night. He argued that the young man could have stopped.

“If he had stopped, he’d be alive today,” Hannon told the jury. “He chose not to. He might have been arrested with a weapon. He might have been arrested with drugs. But he’d be alive.”

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Jurors also had to assess whether Sutton and Zabavsky violated police protocols at the crash scene after the fatal collision as part of a coverup attempt, and later tried to deceive their shift commander into believing that no in-depth investigation of the incident was warranted. That was the basis for the charges of conspiracy and obstructing justice, which both officers faced.

Prosecutors alleged that Sutton initiated the chase because Hylton-Brown was riding the rented moped erratically and without a helmet. Police policy bars an officer from pursuing a motorist only because of a traffic violation. But defense attorneys argued that officers had a reasonable suspicion that Hylton-Brown intended to commit a crime in Brightwood Park that night and, as a result, they were obligated by police regulations to stop and question him.

Sutton and Zabavsky were members of the 4th District’s crime suppression team, or CST, an elite unit of plainclothes officers whose job is to prevent crimes before they occur. Hannon said CST officers had been told that Hylton-Brown, who had an arrest record for gun possession, was planning to exact retribution against someone in Brightwood Park.

Referring to the chase in his closing argument, Hannon said of Sutton, “He did his duty.” But Baset said the officers were acting on mere guesswork. “As much as Mr. Hannon tries, he cannot justify his client’s actions … based only on a hunch,” Baset argued.

In the final seconds of the chase, prosecutors said, Sutton slowed behind the moped in an alley, turning off the police vehicle’s siren and emergency lights, then suddenly accelerating toward Hylton-Brown in an effort to “flush” him out of the alley and into oncoming traffic.

“This was a game for Mr. Sutton,” Baset told jurors. “He knew he was playing a game of chicken with Mr. Hylton-Brown,” which caused the young man’s death.

When Hylton-Brown darted out of the alley, the moped collided with a Toyota Scion traveling on Kennedy Street NW. Hylton-Brown was propelled into the air, landing on the pavement and suffering a catastrophic brain injury, according to an autopsy.

At the 4th District station later that evening, Baset said, the officers misled their shift commander by describing the crash as relatively insignificant, downplaying Hylton-Brown’s injuries and omitting any mention of a chase. Sutton also wrote an initial draft of a police report that gave a false account of what had happened, Baset said.

He said the officers’ goal was to forestall an in-depth investigation of the incident, but the plan failed when Hylton-Brown’s injuries proved to be fatal. But Hannon and Christopher Zampogna, Zabavsky’s defense attorney, argued that the evidence in this trial showed the officers behaved properly at the crash scene and did nothing afterward to intentionally conceal their actions.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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