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Hed: Officer cleared in Doty lawsuit

By Philip Moulden

Daily Journal

ABERDEEN – A federal court jury late Saturday cleared Tupelo Police Officer Richard Erickson of wrongdoing in his February 1994 arrest of City Councilman Tommy Doty.

After about an hour and a half of deliberations, the six-woman, one-man panel ruled that Erickson had probable cause to stop Doty Feb. 3, 1994, when the councilman was forced to undergo three breath alcohol tests. All three tests proved negative for a presumption of drunken driving.

The jury also found Erickson had not violated Doty’s free speech rights by using police powers to stifle the councilman’s criticism of the police department and its administration.

Erickson, who sat calmly through four days of trial, wiped tears from his eyes after the unanimous verdict. Supporters, most of them fellow officers, moved to congratulate him.

“I don’t have any comment right now,” a subdued Erickson said.

Doty had charged Erickson was the visible link in a hidden conspiracy by police and Mayor Jack Marshall to degrade and embarrass him in retaliation for his accusations of wrongdoing in city offices.

“They say you can’t fight City Hall,” Doty said after the verdict. “I might have lost, but I won’t give up.”

Doty had sought unspecified damages, but Erickson was not in jeopardy of a financial setback because the City Council had agreed to cover any judgment against him.

But the potential loss was much greater, with both Erickson’s and the police department’s reputations on the line. Doty had also accused Marshall of being a co-conspirator.

Doty attorney Jimmy Doug Shelton suggested the Tupelo Police Department was an organization out of control and the jury could fix it.

“Mr. Doty is not here for the money,” Shelton told the jury in his closing statements. “He’s here for justice. We’ve got to stop it; we’ve got to stop it now. Your decision today can stop corrupt government.”

But Bob Whitwell, one of Erickson’s attorneys, argued that the evidence totally supported his client.

“The truth of the matter is there is no direct proof against Dick Erickson,” Whitwell said. “The circumstantial evidence is zero. There’s nothing there.”

Doty had produced a string of witnesses who said they had overheard police officers and Marshall making veiled and open threats to “get Doty.”

But when the last witness left the stand, not one had directly implicated Erickson in either a plot to “set up” the councilman or even of taking part in discussion negative of Doty. In fact, people on both sides called Erickson an upstanding officer.

Erickson had testified it was mere coincidence, not a plan, that put him across the street from where Doty was attending a Tennessee Valley Authority reception with other officials that night.

Erickson said he saw a truck apparently speed through the intersection of Gloster and Jefferson streets and watched it run a stop sign and red light as he followed in his unmarked car. The officer said he tailed the truck another mile before pulling it over. He said that’s when he discovered it was Doty.

Erickson said he called a Metro DUI unit because he smelled alcohol on Doty. The councilman twice tested 0.07 or 0.08 percent – below the 0.1 percent that legally signals intoxication – but he was taken to City Jail for a third test. It registered 0.079 and no DUI charge was filed. However, Doty was ticketed for the two traffic violations, which were later ruled unfounded in municipal court.

“We’re just very pleased with the jury’s verdict,” Tony Farese, one of Erickson’s attorneys, said. “Dick Erickson is an excellent officer.”

“It’s been a long, hard-fought case on both sides,” added Whitwell, who said the issue was a political dispute that should never have ended up in a federal court.

Doty’s attorneys accepted the verdict stoically.

“First, I want to say it is an honor to know Tommy Doty. He’s one of the best citizens I’ve ever seen,” said attorney Jim Waide.

The trial produced conflicting testimony among current and former officers and even sheriff’s department personnel.

In one case, two police narcotics officers testified Saturday that it was a sheriff’s deputy and not them who suggested “setting up” Doty during one conversation.

North Mississippi Narcotics Unit Commander Scott Sandefer and Assistant Commander Fred Collins said it was Lee County Deputy Mike Scribener who suggested they try to set up Doty after the councilman’s complaints sparked controversy over narcotics unit operations.

On Wednesday, Scribener had testified that it was Collins who suggested the deputy get Doty. Scribener repeated that testimony Saturday, but both times said he believed Collins’ remark were made in jest.

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