Coffland trial may end today
ST. CLAIRSVILLE – The first day of a high-profile trial to decide the fate of one of Belmont County’s highest officials began Wednesday at the courthouse.
Commissioner Matt Coffland is charged with assaulting a peace officer during Jamboree in the Hills July 20 at about 9:45 p.m. It is alleged that he threw a beer can at Donald Germany, an investigator with the Ohio Department of Public Safety, who was among agents on duty at the event.
The trial is expected to end today.
Coffland is being represented by Patrick Cassidy and Tom Myers. Special Prosecutor Tom Hampton is representing the state. Judge Lyton Lewis is presiding.
Jury selection took up the majority of the morning. The complications posed by Coffland’s visibility as a public servant and community leader running for re-election was evident during the process of interviewing the jurors, with several being replaced due to prior associations with Coffland, members of council, or opinions formed by the publicity surrounding the case.
“I’m concerned we may take this two-day trial and turn it into a two-week trial,” Lyton said with humor.
Issues became more serious when counsel launched their opening statements.
The key points the prosecution must prove is that Coffland committed the assault and knew that Germany was a law-enforcement officer.
Hampton and Cassidy reviewed the background of the case and the events leading up to the event. An earlier incident at Coffland’s Shadyside bar in April near closing time where agents were carding individuals and Coffland reportedly announced their presence and advised patrons to leave. Coffland was charged with interfering in official business. In a later radio interview, Coffland had been critical of the agents’ performance, saying their behavior toward customers had nearly instigated a fight.
“We’re not here to decide what happened at a bar in Shadyside called the Tiger Pub,” Hampton said.
During the Jamboree, Coffland apparently observed the agents performing similar duties.
“He had ample reason to be angry at them in his mind,” Hampton said.
Hampton recounted that on July 20 an agent was struck in the head with a beer can, which sprayed surrounding individuals. An agent and a civilian attendant both claimed to witness Coffland throwing the can. Witnesses described Coffland as behaving aggressively. One believed he shouted a racial slur at the agent.
“Mr. Coffland was immediately arrested because he threw this can of beer at an agent,” Hampton said. He noted that the action could not have taken more than seconds.
In his statement, Cassidy said that law enforcement can both make mistakes and be motivated by outright malice, and suggested the agents’ behavior toward Coffland bordered on harassment.
He stated that Coffland was completely innocent.
“Matt Coffland did not do it,” Cassidy said. “The charge is untrue.”
He raised doubts about the ability of eyewitnesses to accurately identify Coffland during the situation. He pointed out the noise, the crowds and the distance of the witnesses to the alleged action, the lighting, the fact that many were waving water bottles in a way that could be mistaken for throwing movements and the involvement of alcohol. He said witnesses will testify that Coffland had not been acting aggressively and could not have been positioned to throw an object at the time.
“We will bring everyone into this courtroom that was anywhere near within 10 feet of Mr. Coffland at the time they say he threw a can,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy said Coffland could not have known that the individual was a liquor control agent. He noted that close to half of the 20 agents present at the event were close to Coffland in a perimeter and investigative formation and immediately converged on him.
“This was a bum rush,” Cassidy said, stating that the agents were behaving in an hostile manner toward Coffland and his family and had a motive to catch him in wrongdoing.
“At best, this is a matter of mistaken identity,” he said, noting that a felony charge would cost Coffland his elected position and liquor license. “His whole livelihood is on the line and they knew that because they’re liquor control agents how serious this charge is to Matt Coffland.”
He added that the official record did not include the name of an agent who had been present at the April incident, but two people in Coffland’s party claim this agent was involved in the July arrest.
The cross examination of the two eye witnesses occupied the remainder of the day.
Alicia Corey of Warren, Pa. took the stand. During Hampton’s questioning she denied any prior knowledge about Coffland or the case.
“I saw the gentleman throw a beer can that hit the black man on the head,” she said, adding that when an agent inquired if she had seen the action she pointed an individual she believed had thrown the can.
She was about six to 10 feet away with fewer than 20 people in the intervening space.
Corey said she heard racist comments before the can flew but admitted she could not positively say who spoke the alleged profanity.
During cross examination, Cassidy said the individual Corey pointed out had grey hair while Coffland’s was dark. He suggested seeing Coffland arrested might have led her to identify him as the individual while making her report. Corey said she was certain at the scene but noted the intervening time between Jamboree and the court date and said she could not identify Coffland as he was in court as the man at the event.
Agent Ronald Robinson out of Columbus took the stand. Hampton established that Robinson was an officer of 16 years and a trained observer. Robinson testified that during Jamboree Coffland recognized agents and exhibited a “blank, angry stare.”
On July 20 he was 20 to 25 feet away from Coffland. He said he heard no racial pejorative but stated he saw Coffland shout at agents, push another out of his way and throw an item.
“There is no doubt,” he said.
Cassidy posed questions about the circumstances, their relative positions and the proximity of another individual to Coffland. He pointed out the zealous conduct of the officers in their rush to arrest Coffland, saying they caused the melee. Robinson maintained that Coffland was the thrower.
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org