Jury acquits Northampton man on charges stemming from altercation on City Hall steps

  • Eric Matlock watches as the jury enters during his trial in Northampton District Court Sept. 26, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2018 8:48:19 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After a three-day trial, a jury found Eric Matlock not guilty Thursday of all charges related to an August 2017 altercation with police on the steps of City Hall.

Last summer, the Northampton resident staged a protest outside of City Hall after the Department of Children and Families removed his child. On the second day of the trial Wednesday, three witnesses and two officers testified that Matlock blocked the entrance to City Hall. The confrontation became physical when police were called, and Matlock was pepper sprayed.

Matlock was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault and battery on a police officer. He was found not guilty on all counts in Northampton District Court.

Matlock said that he was both surprised and satisfied with the verdict.

“I’m definitely happy the jury was able to see the truth,” he said.

The district attorney’s office said in a statement after the verdict that it won’t second-guess the police department’s conduct in this case, nor the decision to prosecute this matter.

“As we stated from the outset, this entire situation could have been avoided had Mr. Matlock simply complied with the officers’ verbal request to relocate his protest, and stop blocking the front door to City Hall,” the statement said.

Matlock was represented by attorney Dana Goldblatt, while Assistant District Attorney Robert Opsitnick represented the prosecution. Judge Patricia Poehler presided over the trial.

On Thursday, Goldblatt called witness Lynn Kingston to the stand. Kingston was by the entrance of City Hall working on a photography project when Matlock was arrested and took a series of photos documenting part of the incident.

Kingston was found to have broken sequester prior to the third day of the trial, as she read Gazette coverage related to the trial that morning. Kingston was permitted to testify and said she did not realize she was breaking sequester by reading about the trial.

Kingston testified that she saw police run up the stairs of City Hall saying “We know you Eric,” then picked him up, bringing him to one of the front steps.

During the altercation, Kingston said that she heard Matlock say “Why am I being arrested?” She also heard him say that he couldn’t breathe.

“I witnessed something that seemed excessive,” Kingston said. “I didn’t know what was going on.” She later called the scene “disturbing,” and said during cross-examination that it “seemed unnecessary.”

According to Kingston, Matlock was doing “nothing” as he was being restrained.

In her closing statement, Goldblatt argued that Northampton police officers Brent Dzialo and Clay Delano, who removed Matlock from the City Hall steps, intended to “teach Matlock a lesson” by arresting him.

Goldblatt said that Matlock had protested in front of City Hall before, and that the mayor allowed him to stay there.

“This was inconvenient for the police,” Goldblatt said. “The goal was to get Mr. Matlock out of the way and teach him a lesson so he doesn’t do this anymore.”

She also argued that Matlock was not aware that he was under arrest when he hit Dzialo, meaning that he was not resisting arrest.

In the prosecution’s closing argument, Opsitnick said that what Goldblatt described as self-defense was actually an attempt to resist arrest.

Opsitnick said that civil disobedience is not uncommon in Northampton, but that Matlock refused to obey police orders to step away from the door to City Hall and behaved in a “violent and tumultuous” manner during the incident.

“If (Matlock) would have moved on his own, (police) would have turned around and went back on duty,” Opsitnick said. “But that’s not what happened.”

Opsitnick also cited video evidence in which Matlock can be heard asking why he is being placed under arrest, arguing that this statement indicated that Matlock knew he was under arrest at the time that he hit an officer.

The Northampton Police Department conducted its own review of the incident and determined that the responding officers’ use of force was within department policy.

The post-trial statement from the district attorney’s office noted that there is plenty of open space in the city to peacefully protest and exercise First Amendment rights.

“But when those activities interfere with other citizens’ freedom of movement and safety, it is the duty and the responsibility of our Police Department to intervene and restore order,” the statement said. “The Northampton Police Department has a lengthy track record of performing this task with professionalism and courtesy, and we have no doubt that they will continue to do so in future such situations.”

The six-person jury was sent to deliberate at 12:42 p.m. and returned with a not guilty verdict at approximately 2:10 p.m.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com


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