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Inkster cop could face 10 years in prison for brutal beating of black motorist

Lawyers are set to deliver closing statements Wednesday in the trial of former Inkster, Mich., police officer William Melendez.

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Former Inkster police officer William Melendez sits in Judge Vonda Evans' courtroom at the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on the first day of his trial on Nov. 4. He is charged with beating African-American motorist Floyd Dent during a January traffic stop that's on video. Mr. Melendez, who was fired, is charged with assault.

David Coates/The Detroit News/AP

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The jury in the trial of William Melendez, a former Inkster, Mich., policeman charged with beating a black motorist at a traffic stop last January, is set to hear closing arguments Wednesday. 

Mr. Melendez has pleaded not guilty to charges of misconduct in office, assault with intent to do great bodily harm, and strangulation. If convicted, he could spend up to 10 years in prison.

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Floyd Dent said during his testimony that he "begged for Melendez to stop and feared for his life" during the January 28 traffic stop, the Associated Press reports. He had trouble answering questions on the stand, he said, because the injuries he sustained make it difficult for him to process information.

Police dashboard camera video show Melendez punching Mr. Dent repeatedly, with an arm around his neck, and another officer holding him down. The former officer was fired from the Inkster police force, a suburb of Detroit that is majority black and has a majority while police force. Melendez's termination occurred in April, more than two months after the altercation, and following local station WDIV-TV airing the surveillance footage.

Melendez's defense attorney, James Thomas, asked jurors at the beginning of the trial to remember that his client had been "conducting surveillance in a high-crime area," the AP reports, and said that Dent's actions were in line with someone "fetching" drugs. Mr. Thomas also claims Dent resisted arrest.

The jury viewed the dash-cam video at regular speed and then slowed down. Another video provided by the Inkster lockup facility shows an officer wiping blood from Dent's head before a mugshot was taken.

"Tough job to be a cop anywhere," defense lawyer Thomas told jurors. "They wear flak vests for a reason. It's dangerous out there, and Inkster is a dangerous city."

Prosecutor Robert Donaldson has framed the case as an abuse of power.

"We give them enormous power," he said of police. "We give them the power to take our freedom. We give them power to take our lives. There are limits on that power."

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Public outcry over police use of force on minority civilians, combined with the rise in video surveillance, may result in a spike in criminal prosecution of police, criminal justice experts say.

Kami Chavis-Simmons, a former US attorney who now directs the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, N.C., said in a prior interview with The Christian Science Monitor that prosecutors in police use of force cases face "a pretty high burden" of proof that the officer’s use of force was unreasonable – especially since judges and juries tend to be sympathetic to the officer, who was most likely "in dangerous situation, having to make a quick decision."

"Even if you have an increase in the indictments or prosecutions, that does not necessarily mean that you have an increase in the number of convictions," she adds. 

At the start of the trial on Nov. 4, state police Lt. Twana Powell was brought to the witness stand to provide testimony on her investigation into Dent's beating, which she said was called for two months after it happened. 

When asked about a chokehold around Dent's neck, Lieutenant Powell read directly from the Inkster police manual, which says, "Chokeholds are strictly forbidden."

The prosecution said Dent rolled through a stop sign and was driving with a suspended license on January 28, but has no criminal record.

Cocaine was found in Dent's Cadillac, but Dent claimed police planted it. All charges against him related to the stop were later dismissed. Earlier this year Dent reached a $1.4 million settlement against Inkster in a civil lawsuit.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.