ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The jury returned a verdict of not guilty Friday in the trial of Commissioner Matt Coffland. The county leader and Shadyside bar owner had been accused of assaulting a peace officer during Jamboree in the Hills.
The three-day trial concluded after a day of testimony from the defense. Coffland chose to take the stand and relate the events of the evening of his arrest July 20 as well as an April 1 incident at his bar.
He said three liquor control agents entered his establishment near closing time and began carding patrons.
Commissioner Matt Coffland takes the stand and testifies during his trial. He was acquitted of one count of assaulting a peace officer.
T-L Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK
Coffland said he observed his son and two patrons in altercation with one agent, who identified himself as Chris Jones. Coffland said he instructed his DJ to announce liquor control agents were present and the bar was closing. He added that the time was 1:57 a.m. and the bar closes at 2:20 a.m.
He said Jones claimed the agents had been placed in danger. Coffland said he told them to go behind the bar, where they looked over the area for unsanitary conditions. He said they had not identified themselves and were inciting a hostile situation with his patrons.
He maintained that he was dancing with his arms around his wife, Lisa, during Jamboree when the can was allegedly thrown. He said his first indication of any trouble was when he was seized and handcuffed.
Coffland said he was kept handcuffed and clearly visible at the agents' command unit for close to an hour and a half during processing. He said that a grey-haired agent told Coffland he had followed him for the past two days.
He denied making any apology or anything that could be construed as a confession to Agent Donald Germany, who had been struck.
Coffland estimated he had consumed five to six beers during the course of the day. Cassidy noted and witnesses confirmed that the majority of beer cans in the Coffland party sported political-themed insulation sleeves.
Special Prosecutor Tom Hampton, questioned Coffland. Hampton asked if he thought a radio interview he had given shortly before Jamboree could have contributed to the agents' desire to arrest him. He asked if Coffland believed he had been inflammatory to the agents.
Coffland said he spoke the truth as he knew it but could not say how others might have taken it. He said he felt it necessary to relate his side of the story publicly, since that media outlet had often referred to the April event. Hampton asked if Coffland had been angry at the time. Coffland said that the situation has been upsetting.
Lisa Coffland had also testified and confirmed that Coffland had been dancing with her and held nothing in his hands.
Brian Shram, DJ at the Shadyside bar, and Matthew B. Coffland Jr., son of Matt Coffland, gave similar accounts of the April 1 incident, with Coffland's son stating that Jones did not at first identify himself, had shoved him and was creating a belligerent situation.
He said Jones was part of the arresting detail at Jamboree and pushed him away from the Coffland site.
Shram added that he was near Coffland and splashing water from his water bottle as he shook it out. He speculated that he might have splashed agents. He noted the heavy crowds and confusion at the time. He stated that a flashlight beam from one of the agents illuminated his face before Coffland's. He also stated he saw Jones.
Numerous other members of the Coffland party testified that they were close to the dancing couple and saw nothing. They noted the aggression displayed by the agents. A sheriff's deputy on duty also testified that he saw nothing thrown from the Coffland area.
Hampton's cross examination showed the majority of them were watching the stage and could only have seen Coffland peripherally. He noted that the light around the stage would have been sufficient to view individuals.
During the closing statements, Hampton cited the contributing factors of alcohol and anger, added that throwing a can would have been a matter of seconds.
"Mr. Coffland had a reason to be angry at liquor control. The evidence shows it. I think his demeanor on the stand showed it," he said, adding that the eyewitnesses had no reason to go out of their way to do Coffland harm. He said the civilian witness testified that she told the truth as best she could while making her statement in July. He also noted the Columbus agent eyewitness' expertise and experience. "The evidence shows the attempt was made."
Hampton said reasonable doubt does not mean no doubt at all.
"This case is full of doubt," said Patrick Cassidy for the defense.
"Sometimes the government can make a mistake or sometimes government agents may even be malicious," said Cassidy.
"Either this was a mistaken identity of epic proportions based on incompetence of evidence gathering and citing," he said. "Or it was an intentional malicious setup."
Cassidy added that the defense was not required to prove either way. He noted that the prosecution's witnesses had been dispersed around the area and pointed out inconsistencies in the agents' reports and courtroom testimony.
"This kind of thing should never have gotten this far in a court of law, spent all the resources of this state and took up three whole days on the basis of such flimsy evidence. He is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."
Both Hampton and Cassidy stressed the jury's duty to uphold the law.
The Coffland family reacted with cheers as the "not guilty" verdict was read.
Coffland is running for re-election.
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org