Cover Story

On Trial

by Nathan Stubbs

Nine months after Guamas owners Rubens Mesa and his wife Julieta Tarazona were arrested ' and Mesa was injured by four Lafayette policemen ' they face their accusers in court.

"This is Christine with the Lafayette Police Department."

"Yeah, well, uh, we got your officers out here beating on a guy, all right, that he hasn't done nothin'. I witnessed everything."

"Okay. Well, if I was you I'd go over and speak with the officers."

"Well, there ain't no speaking to them. They beat the s--t out of him."

"Okay. Would you like to speak to my Captain?"

"Yeah, I'll speak with him."

"Hold on."

"Captain Dartez. May I help you?"

"What's your name, sir?"

"Captain Dartez."

"My name is Manual Vega. Your guys, police officers over here, are beating up on a guy who did absolutely nothing."

"Okay. Where is that at?"

"Right here in downtown."

"Where at?"

"Right here on the corner of, uh, right here between the Rainforest and 307."

"That's that call they just called in that somebody was resisting arrest."

"No, they weren't resisting."

"Well, if the guy wants to file a complaint who was the victim, then he can."

"Well, I tell you what. I'm going to be a witness about filing â?¦ if he files a complaint."

"All right."

"He did absolutely nothing. They beat the s--t out of him."

"All right, have a nice day."

' Transcript of 911 call to Lafayette police on Aug. 9, 2005

Two weeks ago, Rubens Mesa sat with his head hung down at the end of a crescent table in Lafayette City Court Room 3, listening carefully to the testimony of a Lafayette City Police officer. Seated closely next to him, his wife, Julieta Tarazona, now seven months pregnant, held her hands underneath her bulging belly. Mesa slouched slightly in his chair in his navy blazer, occasionally breaking his stare from the police officer to scribble notes on Post-it pads for the two attorneys seated with them at the defense table.

Seated at the witness stand approximately 15 feet across the room was one of the police officers Mesa says slammed his head up against a light post, threw him to the ground and beat him up on the sidewalk in front of his restaurant during an altercation last April. According to Mesa, Tarazona and eight eyewitnesses who testified on their behalf, two officers took Mesa down without proper cause; soon afterward, two other cops joined in beating Mesa while he lay pinned on the ground ("Street Fight," April 20, 2005).

Cpl. David Azemar, in full uniform with his CB radio attached to his epaulet, testified to a slightly different version of events.

Azemar said on the night in question, he quickly responded to a call for backup from Sgt. Dwayne Prejean to a busy downtown street corner. When he arrived, Mesa and Tarazona appeared to be drunk and interfering with Prejean's arrest of another suspect. Officer Michael Boutte went to handcuff Mesa, who Azemar says violently resisted being arrested. That's when he and two other officers, Curtis Oakes and Paul Trouard, stepped in to help apprehend Mesa, who still fought back. (Oakes and Trouard did not testify at the trial.)

Azemar swiveled slightly in his chair, able to turn and face either Judge Doug Saloom, who made notes on a legal pad behind his bench to his left, or City Prosecutor Gary Haynes, who sat next to a stone-faced Sgt. Prejean throughout the trial at a table to the right of the witness stand.

"It's called liquid courage," Azemar said when Haynes asked why Mesa would try and challenge four officers. "Sometimes people who are intoxicated will try and take on things they wouldn't normally do."

While this storyline matched Officer Boutte's earlier testimony, other specifics from their stories differed. Boutte says the two of them walked up to the street corner together; Azemar says he came after Boutte. Boutte noted he administered a leg sweep to Mesa to bring him down, while Azemar says it was an open-handed palm strike to Mesa's shoulder that sent him to the ground.

Moments later, Azemar was looking through a file of photos taken the day after the altercation. The pictures show Mesa with inch-long crimson red wounds along the side of his face, the top of his forehead, his right ear, and left shoulder. Azemar testified that each injury was consistent with his recollection of the officers' struggle with Mesa. Across the room, Mesa looked at his own copies of the photos. Next to him, his wife, dressed in black stretch pants and a red jacket, shook her head and turned back to give a reassuring smile to her 76-year-old mother, Alicia Tarazona. She sat arms bundled in her beige overcoat in the third row back from her daughter on each day of the trial ' the only spectator to sit continuously through the entire proceeding, which spanned three days and included more than 30 hours of testimony.

Mesa and Tarazona, owners of the downtown South American restaurant Guamas, were both standing trial for the misdemeanor charges police arrested them for during the altercation on the night of April 8, 2005. Both were charged with disturbing the peace by intoxication and remaining after forbidden. Mesa was also charged with misdemeanor counts of resisting arrest and battery of a police officer.

It was a jarring experience for the young couple, both Latin American immigrants, who have lived and worked in Lafayette for more than a decade.

At age 24, Mesa fled his native country of Cuba on a raft and was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard off the coast of Florida. Less than a year later, he moved here and began working offshore in the oilfield. Mesa is now a permanent U.S. resident and has applied for citizenship.

Tarazona, who was born in Columbia and raised in Venezuela, followed some of her family to Lafayette in 1990. She became a U.S. citizen three years later. She and Mesa met through mutual friends in 1996 and were married after a brief courtship. Shortly afterward, they decided to pursue a dream of restaurant ownership.

The two first opened Guamas in 1997 in a tiny, shotgun-style space behind Baskin-Robbins on Johnston Street shopping. Mesa worked as chef, and Julieta managed the front of the diner, a tradition carried on to this day. After building a loyal customer base, they moved to a larger building on West St. Mary Boulevard. In addition to working as chef, Mesa has also served as the chief carpenter for each restaurant.

Almost two years ago, they moved to Guamas' present location on Jefferson Street, in an expansive mango-colored building in the heart of the downtown business district. The restaurant's success is a testament to the couple's hard work and the respect they've earned from the Lafayette community.

Around 12:30 a.m. on a busy Friday night last April, police arrested them both on the corner by the front of the restaurant, forcefully taking down Mesa, who had to be examined at University Medical Center before he was booked into Lafayette Parish Correctional Center.

The episode forced Mesa and Tarazona to reevaluate their bond with Lafayette. At one point, Tarazona says, "Me and Rubens sat down and said, 'Is this the city we want to be in?' This is a small city. We're wondering, how serious is this [problem]? Because we've heard the stories from other people. Here we are working our butts off with the restaurant, and we try to be an active part of the community. If it happened to us, I wonder what could happen to anybody else?"

Five lawsuits alleging excessive force and false arrest by Lafayette police officers were filed in 2005, according to Lafayette Consolidated Government Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley.

Word spread quickly about the incident outside Guamas, and Mesa and Tarazona were approached by several attorneys interested in representing them in a civil suit against the city. As the months went by, they waited, and wondered if the city was ever going to prosecute them on the charges they were arrested for that night.

"We were really hoping the police department would notice they had made a mistake," Tarazona says. After the incident, Luis Mora, president of the local Latin American Association, met with Lafayette Police Chief Randy Hundley and expressed his concern. Hundley told him he would look into it and get back to him. "I'm still waiting for [the phone call]," says Mora.

Mesa and Tarazona hoped for some form of an apology from the city, but it never came.

In November, they received a letter about their arraignment.

"They made the first move," Mesa says. "And that's when we decided, 'OK, let's fight this thing.' That was the reason why we decided to fight."

They took out a loan to hire a team of lawyers, with Jim Diaz Sr. and William Goode taking the lead on the case, and Joe Lemoine acting as a consulting attorney.

Goode, a fiery attorney who came to court in brightly colored ties and black cowboy boots, handled the cross-examination of the police officers at the trial, while the calm and collected Diaz, dressed in plain dark suits, walked the vast majority of the defense's witnesses through their testimonies.

For Mesa and Tarazona, there was more was at stake than beating six misdemeanor charges.

"We want to make a positive change in the police department," Tarazona says. "We were not at fault, and these guys made a huge mistake and needed to hear it, even if it was just one policeman."

"We're not talking about all the police officers," adds Mesa. "There's a lot of great officers there, and we need good police officers. We support the police department. I've heard about other people this happened to ' and probably a lot worse than me ' and they kept their mouth shut. A lot of people have been in my situation, and I just don't want this to happen anymore."

City court trials, which typically involve small claims cases, are usually handled in a day and rarely feature more than two or three witnesses. From the first day of trial, this case was different. When it was scheduled to start, more than a dozen people filled the back aisles of the courtroom, anxiously awaiting the trial. Mesa and Tarazona walked back to greet people as they came in and sat down.

All but a few of them were on a list of 21 witnesses the defense attorneys planned to put on the stand. Their witness list included 10 eyewitnesses of Mesa's altercation with police and six witnesses set to testify solely on Mesa and Tarazona's character and reputation in the community.

Among them were Guamas employees and relatives who all testified that Tarazona and Mesa were not drunk at the time of the incident. A few of the Guamas employees were also eyewitnesses to the event.

Other eyewitnesses were more objective bystanders. Mike Mellon noted that he had several relatives in the police department, and was visibly nervous before taking the stand. Mellon testified that Mesa was taken down as if he were "an armed, violent criminal."

John Boutte, a 70-year-old resident of the Evangeline Apartments, and Regina Baker, who worked as a security guard at the Evangeline Apartment building that night, also testified on behalf of the defense.

On cross-examination, City Prosecutor Gary Haynes asked Baker if she had frequented Guamas since the incident and if so, who paid for her meals. Looking slightly puzzled, Baker responded that she had only eaten there once. "I paid for my own sandwich," she said.

All of the defense's eyewitnesses testified that Mesa and Tarazona appeared sober and that police were unprovoked when they beat Mesa on the sidewalk. Like the police officers' testimonies, some of the details of their stories, such as the timing of events, how Mesa fell, and the number and order of police involved, did not match up.

Diaz also asked Andrea Cabrera, a young woman who moved to Lafayette from Venezuela three years ago, what she thought of the Lafayette Police Department after seeing the incident. She said, "I'm kind of afraid to talk to any of them when I'm downtown. â?¦ You lose a lot of respect when you see something like that."

On the witness stand, Mesa also gave his own compelling testimony of the events. "Every businessman loves to have protection from the police," he said. "I never had any problem with the police.

"I don't have any problem with you guys," he added, turning and nodding to Sgt. Prejean. "I don't know why we had this incident."

Describing his struggle with police, Mesa said he initially had difficulty remembering the incident.

"After the next day, when I came [back to the scene] and there was blood on the sidewalk, we cleaned the sidewalk and I looked to where my wife had been," he said. "That's when I started to realize what position I was in the day before. I remember seeing my screaming wife right there pointing up. I didn't see anybody, but I saw that. I remember I smelled the leather from the boot and feeling the kick. I remember feeling the weight of the knee kick on the bricks. [The officer] said, 'Stop resisting.' I screamed, 'I'm not resisting.' That's what happened."

The defense's case also featured the testimony of University Medical Center nurse Rose Gahn and Dr. Leno Contang, who examined Mesa in the emergency room roughly a half hour after the altercation took place. Both testified that Mesa showed no signs of intoxication when they examined him. They both said it is important for them to note whether a patient is intoxicated, because of issues with medications; a drunk person can also display symptoms similar to that of someone who has suffered a traumatic head injury.

At the end of the second day of trial, after all of the police officers had wrapped up their testimony, Goode made a motion for acquittal on all the charges primarily citing Gahn's testimony that Mesa was not intoxicated as the lynchpin in the defense's case.

"Your honor, if that doesn't create reasonable doubt, I don't know what does," he said. "She's looking for signs of intoxication. She's actively inspecting him, and that goes to the credibility of all the officers in this case. This whole case is about the police being out of control this night and being really wrong about these people and being really wrong about how the law applies in this case."

Saloom denied the motion.

From early on in the proceedings, City Prosecutor Haynes made it known that he felt more was at stake during this trial than the charges being tried. The veteran prosecutor, now in his ninth year with the city, made frequent objections throughout the trial to evidence and testimony submitted by the defense.

"Your honor, I don't mean to be difficult," Haynes said at one point of the slow-moving trial, explaining his position. "It is a well-known fact that the defendants are taking part in a civil suit against the city. This can be used as a stepping stone [to a civil case], and they get as much out of [the officers' testimony] now as they can to try and trip them up later."

Haynes' comments prompted defense attorney Diaz to counter that no civil suit had been filed. "We feel that the city is trying to intimidate our client in an attempt to get them to give up their rights to a civil proceeding." Diaz noted that Haynes had tried to cut a deal with Mesa and Tarazona before the trial, offering to see if the charges could be dropped if the couple agreed not to sue the city. Tarazona says Haynes also proposed the possibility of dropping the bulk of the charges if they pled no contest to the remaining after forbidden charges.

Haynes likely wasn't the only one concerned about the possibility of a civil suit. At certain points in the trial, Ryan Domengeaux, from the city's risk management department, stepped in to watch testimony from the back of the courtroom.

Haynes said Tarazona and Mesa's refusal to settle was a clear indication they intended to file a civil suit. He also claimed that the defense requested documents and information that is rarely used in criminal defense. Goode obtained police department personnel files, which would have included any prior complaints against the police officers involved. However, after viewing the files in closed session, Judge Saloom ruled that the information had questionable relevancy and kept the files sealed.

On a couple of occasions, Saloom had to remind the defense and the prosecution that the police officers were not on trial. During his cross-examinations, Goode relentlessly probed the officers, who sometimes sat puzzled as to the nature of questions such as "Have you ever competed in a powerlifting competition?" and "What size suit do you wear?"

The prosecution built its case around Prejean, a 19-year veteran of the force who testified for almost three hours. Haynes began by having Prejean explain all of the training he had received during his years on the force, which included FBI training on hostage negotiation and local police training on "verbal judo," which he described as a "tactic used by police officers in an effort to de-escalate an escalating situation."

Prejean testified that on the night in question, Tarazona approached him as he was apprehending another individual, Tyler Guilbeau, for public drunkenness. Prejean said Tarazona was agitated about Guilbeau's arrest, but she initially complied when he directed her to go stand at the street corner. He added Tarazona "made comments to me about calling the governor and having my job by way of contacting the governor." (Tarazona later testified that she does not know Gov. Kathleen Blanco.) Still trying to deal with Guilbeau, Prejean called for backup. When he approached Tarazona on the sidewalk, Mesa had joined her. Prejean instructed them to leave, and he said Mesa yelled, "I own this sidewalk."

At this point, Prejean told Tarazona she was under arrest and grabbed her arm; she fell to her knees screaming. That's when the confrontation between Mesa and officers Boutte and Azemar began. "I observed their right to handcuff him," said Prejean. "He was non-compliant."

Prejean's testimony weighed heavily in the judge's ruling. After all the testimony concluded at roughly 9:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3, Saloom left the courtroom to review the evidence, saying, "We're going to finish this tonight."

He reappeared approximately 15 minutes later. "I don't want anyone to think that me deciding this case tonight has any bearance on the time and effort that was put in by [the prosecution and defense]," he began. "I have given it a lot of thought.

"This is probably the first time in 10 years of serving as a judge that I've been reminded myself so much about what it was like to be a lawyer," he continued. "I woke up about 4 o' clock this morning with a thousand thoughts running through my head. I have never in 10 years read more about disturbing the peace, remaining after forbidden or resisting arrest than I have in the past week."

Saloom rendered his ruling with a 20-minute explanation.

On the question of disturbing the peace by public intoxication, Saloom said an officer's judgment of a person being intoxicated is enough for a conviction, but in this case he relied more on the testimony from the two UMC professionals, who were perhaps the most objective witnesses in the case. Noting that there perhaps is no "grungier" job in the medical community than working the UMC emergency room, he found it "very compelling that neither of the trained medical personnel found any indication of an impairment."

Since Mesa and Tarazona were on a public sidewalk and had originally walked away from the officers when ordered, he sided with the defense and dismissed the remaining after forbidden charges.

On the charges Mesa faced of resisting arrest and battery of an officer, Saloom considered the officers' testimony. "There has been absolutely no testimony as to anyone telling Mr. Mesa he is under arrest until they're on the ground yelling, 'Stop resisting,'" Saloom noted. "Being placed on the ground in a physically aggressive manner, that particular person, if all they do is refuse to put their right hand back because somebody took them down and nobody told them they were under arrest, that would also fall under a reasonable resistance."

Saloom ultimately found Tarazona and Mesa not guilty of all six charges. After the final verdict was announced, Tarazona clasped her hands together and began crying. "Thank you, your honor, so much," she said.

It was after 10 p.m. A line consisting of Tarazona's weary mother and three witnesses that had stayed to watch the end of the trial formed behind the defendants, offering hugs.

A few minutes later, Tarazona walked out of the courthouse. Wrapped in an overcoat, she expressed relief and hope the whole ordeal would result in some positive change. As to whether she and her husband might file a civil suit for unlawful arrest or excessive force against the city to put the issue further out into the public, Tarazona still has reservations.

"I want to have this baby," she says, looking down at her stomach. "I want to hear what the lawyers have to tell me. I want to hear what difference it would make. We want to go step by step. I think we have made an impact, just by letting the judge look at this and hear it."