Jury in York County SC finds ex-Rock Hill cop not guilty after trial on assault charge

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A jury in South Carolina found former Rock Hill police officer Jonathan Moreno not guilty of assault in the controversial 2021 arrest of a Black man.

The York County jury deliberated all day Wednesday before coming to a decision after 7 p.m.

Moreno hugged his family and lawyers after the verdict was read.

Outside the courtroom, Moreno told reporters in an impromptu news conference that the incident divided Rock Hill, but as a police officer, he always tried to be a person who united others. Moreno, 35, is Hispanic and a native of Florida. He served the Rock Hill Police Department for 10 years before he was fired after the incident.

“Where I come from, there is diversity,” Moreno said. “I believe, one day, Travis (Price) and I can come together...We can resolve this, and really make a change.”

Travis Price is Black. He is the person Moreno took to the ground June 23 in an incident that sparked race-related protests in Rock Hill after video of the incident was posted on Facebook.

Moreno was fired two weeks after the incident and arrested after he gave a public apology.

Wednesday night, Moreno praised the justice system, saying it’s the greatest in the world.

Moreno said he has been stressed for seven months since his arrest. He said he has not decided if he will return to police work. Moreno said he has to speak to his wife and family about the future. He still has his law enforcement certification and the only thing that was keeping him from working was the pending charge.

Moreno’s lawyers praised the jurors for the verdict.

Defense lawyer Creighton Coleman said a key to the trial was Moreno’s testimony.

“Jonathan was believable and honest,” Coleman said. “He was just doing his job that day.”

Travis Price said after the trial his lawyer advised him not to comment. Price’s lawyer, Justin Bamberg, did give a statement.

“While Travis Price is disappointed by this verdict, he respects the jury process,” Bamberg said. “We appreciate the efforts of Kevin Brackett and the Solicitor’s office but we are concerned about many things that came to light during trial. Former Rock Hill police officer Jonathan Moreno admitted the official police report and use of force report were mostly inaccurate. Everyone testified that Travis was innocent, and that nobody escalated the situation that day aside from law enforcement.”

Bamberg said he and Price remain concerned that other citizens will suffer the same mistreatment.

“We will continue to fight for those who have been wrongly accused or subjected to excessive force and will push back against this department and any other who attempts to take advantage of those they are entrusted to protect and serve,” Bamberg said.

The York County jury was made up of five women and one man. One of the jurors was African-American. Twice during deliberations, jurors said in notes to the judge that they were not in agreement. Then they delivered a not guilty verdict.

Moreno had been charged with third-degree assault and battery. He now can seek to have his arrest expunged. He had no previous criminal record. He said he was doing his job the day of the arrest.

Travis Price was at a Rock Hill parking lot June 23 to collect jewelry from his brother who was being arrested. Price had been given permission by other police officers to get his brother’s belongings. Video from the incident played in court showed Moreno grab Travis Price and take Price to the ground.

South Carolina prosecutors argued during trial that Moreno used excessive force and did nothing to de-escalate the situation.

Moreno and his lawyers said he acted properly because Moreno had not been told by other officers that Travis Price was allowed to get the jewelry, and Moreno had to make a split-second decision.

The contentious trial was held in York County Magistrate Court. Jurors saw several video clips of the incident. Moreno and Price testified.

Several York County Sheriff’s Office deputies were posted in the courtroom and around the York County magistrate court building on Heckle Boulevard Wednesday as a precaution because of the tensions involved with the trial.

Defense: Moreno broke no law, was scapegoat

Moreno testified he was doing his job and believed Travis Price to be a threat. His lawyers said in court Moreno was singled out as the fall guy by the city of Rock Hill when he was fired and later when Moreno was arrested and prosecuted.

“He (Moreno) went on TV and apologized,” defense lawyer Paul Reeves said in closing arguments. “He was fired. He lost his job. They threw him to the wolves. No other officers got charged. He took the fall.”

Prosecutor: Moreno was untruthful

Kevin Brackett, the top prosecutor for York County, argued Moreno used excessive force. Moreno then made the situation worse by charging Price with hindering police when no crime was committed.

Moreno then lied in police reports and in testimony about what he saw and heard at the scene, because police body camera video showed what really happened, Brackett said in closing arguments.

“Seeing is believing,” Brackett said. “The video tells the story.”

Brackett said in closing arguments the public needs to have confidence in the justice system and police need community support, but trust is built on accountability when people screw up. “If you talk to somebody before you grab them, how hard would it be?” Brackett said. “Pushing his head down into the concrete, was any of that justified?”

Late Wednesday after the trial, Brackett issued a written statement about the outcome.

“While the verdict was not what we sought we respect the decision, appreciate the hard work the jury put in and are grateful for their service,” Brackett said in the statement. “The circumstances surrounding Travis’ treatment on June 23rd of last year were very troubling and the video was painful to watch.

“Travis deserved the opportunity to tell his story and had that chance. Likewise, he was given the opportunity to see Mr. Moreno confronted and forced to account for his actions that day. Regardless of the verdict, the evidence conclusively established that Travis Price was not treated fairly that day. Our hope is that the public respects the decision of this jury and the community can move forward.”

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