Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Twitty plea deal brings anger, relief

By Marie McCain,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Moments before stepping in front of a Hamilton County judge Tuesday, police Lt. Col. Ron Twitty bowed his head with friends and prayed.

        The stress of the past two months seemed to disappear from his face as he closed his eyes, lowered his head, and listened to the softly muttered petitions to God.

[photo] Lt. Col. Ronald J. Twitty signs the no-contest plea.
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        Then his eyes opened and the fretful look returned to his face.

        He'd gone before God, now he'd go before man.

        In a plea deal with prosecutors, Cincinnati's highest-ranking African-American police officer agreed to retire from a police force he'd served for 29 years in exchange for dismissal of more serious charges that could have landed him in prison for more than 10 years.

        Col. Twitty, 52, was indicted last week on felony charges of tampering with records and evidence and misdemeanor falsification and obstruction for allegedly lying about how his city-owned 2001 Ford Taurus sustained $3,300 in damage July 4.

        He was allowed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge of attempted obstruction of official business, which meant he didn't admit guilt in the case. He was convicted by Common Pleas Judge Robert Kraft, who ordered him to pay a $1 fine and $124.20 in court costs.

        Saying the community “needed to move forward,” Judge Kraft praised opposing sides for reaching a compromise on the eve of Sept. 11, the one-year anniversary of terrorist attacks on the United States.

[photo] Lt. Col. Ronald J. Twitty (left) prays with friends and pastors Rousseau O'Neal (center) and H.L. Harvey before entering a no-contest plea.
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        “You thoughtfully saved all of us a painful journey,” said Judge Kraft.

        Col. Twitty thanked his family, his church and his supporters.

        “Your expressions, regardless how small, were a source of strength, commitment and courage for me,” he said in a prepared statement. “With consideration for everyone affected ... I've agreed to the aforementioned plea.”

        The plea agreement will not affect his pension.

        While Col. Twitty maintained that the car was wrecked in a hit-skip while he slept at home, investigators found no evidence of that.

        The case drew heavy media attention for weeks and fueled racial tension because of Col. Twitty's stature as the first black assistant chief in a city plagued by racial tensions. The city's handling of the case led the National Urban League to move its 5,000-delegate 2003 national conference to another city.

        Supporters called the investigation heavy-handed, but Police Chief Tom Streicher said it was a question of honesty.

    What Tuesday's deal means for:
    Col. Twitty: The “no contest” plea to a third-degree misdemeanor allows him to resolve the case without admitting guilt and without risking a conviction on more serious charges. If anew grand jury had indicted him on felony charges, he could have been convicted, lost his job and faced jail time.
    Prosecutors: They did not get an admission of guilt, but they did get a conviction and secured a promise from Col. Twitty to retire. They also put an end to the controversy over their handling of the first grand jury, which included an assistant city solicitor as its foreman.
    City officials: They no longer face having to consider disciplinary action against the city's highest-ranking African-American police officer.Twitty:
    Misdemeanor plea brings both anger, relief
        At least one witness disputed Col. Twitty's claims that he was home by 1 a.m. July 4, saying he was in a College Hill park about 5 a.m.

        Through his attorney, Sharon Zealey, Col. Twitty maintained his innocence. “Anyone who knows him — really knows him — is confident of that fact,” she said.

        Ms. Zealey said the plea bargain was “the best situation for him, his family and the community.” She reiterated that Col. Twitty never admitted guilt. Instead, he did not dispute the prosecution's allegations that he attempted to hinder a police investigation into how his city-owned vehicle was damaged.

        Both Ms. Zealey and Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen were tight-lipped about evidence that convinced a grand jury last week to indict Col. Twitty on two felonies and two misdemeanors.

        “He has taken responsibility for his actions and that was the right thing to do. He has done a lot for this community. He made a mistake,” Mr. Allen said.

        “I think Judge Kraft was thoughtful and recognized the toll this has taken on the community,” said Norma Holt Davis, president of the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. “The decision represents a good opportunity for Assistant Chief Twitty to move on with his life and, for our city, to move on to awaiting matters that confront (it).”

        Prosecutors and Ms. Zealey negotiated through the weekend and Monday before reaching a settlement Tuesday afternoon.Prosecutors demanded Col. Twitty admit to certain things, while Ms. Zealey balked at proposed language.

        In the end, Tuesday's plea dismissed last week's indictments and erased any possibility that the case would be heard by a second grand jury after the first proceedings included an assistant city solicitor who acted as the jury's foreman.

        Asked if he felt Col. Twitty's punishment fit the crime, Mr. Allen said it did. “By virtue of his high rank, this is pretty substantial. I don't think he got off light. This was extremely tough for him,” he said.

        Chief Streicher and City Manager Valerie Lemmie wished Col. Twitty well. Roger Webster, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said he was glad the issue was resolved, that many officers were happy to be able “put this behind us.”

        Ms. Lemmie said she will begin a nationwide search for a new assistant chief.

        Some were not pleased by the outcome.

        “They actually fired this man. They wiped out 29 years of unblemished service for a $3,300 car accident,” said Jim Clingman, former president of the African-American Chamber of Commerce and a friend of Col. Twitty.

        Keith Borders, an attorney and former member of the Citizens Police Review Panel, which reviewed citizen complaints against officers, said Col. Twitty should have never been charged.

        “I'm angered by this entire process,” Mr. Borders said.

        “It leaves the community wondering how will we ever get past these racial tensions when our so-called elected officials continue to engage in questionable actions. I've lost optimism about the process. I've lost faith in our police chief. I've lost faith in the Hamilton County prosecutor. We need new leadership.”

        At the Avon Field Golf Course in North Avondale Tuesday, two golfing buddies of Col. Twitty said they felt he was forced into accepting the plea. They doubted that the full story of how the car was damaged would ever come out. But they agreed it was wise for him to accept a deal.

        “It's a damn shame that it got that far in the first place,” said Larry Alford, a Pleasant Ridge retiree.

        Ellie Johnson, a Bond Hill retiree, said regardless of Tuesday's court action, Col. Twitty will always be respected.

        “He's been a pillar in the community. He's respected by the young and old and that hasn't changed.”

        Kevin Aldridge, Jane Prendergast and Randy Tucker contributed.


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