Suspect Tased, shot, tried

Officers’ statements conflict

          In an image captured by a Taser-mounted video camera, Robert Buchanan of Natchez holds a bat and a bag as he is confronted by Gulfport Police officers in July 2007.

GULFPORT

 Reality forced Gulfport police officers to alter their statements after they used a Taser then shot a Natchez man one late summer night in 2007.

Two officers said they thought Robert Buchanan, then 54, had a bat in his hand when Taser darts were fired at him. Videos from those Tasers show Buchanan laid down the bat after being ordered numerous times to do so. Once hit with a Taser, according to court testimony, Buchanan scooped up the bat and moved toward the first officer who zapped him, Sgt. Paul Podlin. Podlin and another officer, Patrolman Joey Wuest, fired five bullets at Buchanan. Three hit him. He spent 30 days, unconscious, in intensive care, according to court records. He stayed in the hospital almost two months.

The District Attorney’s Office prosecuted Buchanan last week for aggravated assault on a police officer, punishable by up to 30 years in prison. A grand jury has cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

The two-day Circuit Court trial featured conflicting statements from the officers during the investigation and previous court hearings. A disorderly conduct charge, the initial reason for the stop, was dismissed in County Court.

The Circuit Court jury also watched grainy black and white videos from the Taser guns.

When they first spotted Buchanan, Sgt. Paul Podlin and two other officers were driving north on U.S. 49, hauling prisoners to jail in an unmarked Chevy Tahoe. Podlin said he had watched a violent movie the previous night, “Braveheart,” starring Mel Gibson.

Buchanan had just bought an aluminum bat, some orange juice and a sleeping bag at the Walmart Supercenter. He was standing curbside at Burger King. He swung the bat, the officers said, as cars waited at a light to turn onto the highway. The officers had no reports that Buchanan had hit a vehicle or caused one to swerve.

The officers pulled over. “We don’t want to be completely reactive and wait until someone has their window smashed in, or worse,” said Patrol Sgt. Jason Brandt, who waited with the prisoners while Podlin and Wuest walked south to investigate. The officers wore cargo pants and Polo shirts with cloth badges on the chest and police patches on the sleeves.

The video captured their approach: “Drop the bat, or I’m going to Tase you!” Podlin said. “What for?” Buchanan asked. “Drop the bat! Drop it!” About that time, a marked patrol car nosed into view. Buchanan slowly put down the bat and stood with arms open. The staccato fire of Podlin’s Taser followed.

“My mind saw something different,” Podlin admitted under cross-examination by one of Buchanan’s attorney’s, William Martin. “In my mind, he never dropped the bat.”

Buchanan pulled out the Taser wires as if he were swatting at flies. The uniformed patrolmen who had driven up, Ryan Stachura, fired a second Taser. The darts deliver five-second jolts of electricity, usually immobilizing suspects. Buchanan yanked out the second set of darts, too. Then he picked up the bat and moved toward Podlin, eyewitnesses said. A scene from “Braveheart” of a man’s skull being crushed flashed through Podlin’s head, he testified.

“It was like a nightmare,” Podlin said. “We’ve already Tased him twice; he’s coming at us with a baseball bat. If he had the opportunity to strike me in the head with the baseball bat, he could have killed me. I believe that.”

Tasers spent, Podlin and Wuest resorted to service handguns. Buchanan finally went down.

“He fell backwards on the ground, holding his side, and started yelling, ‘Aw, y’all shot me,’” Officer Stachura testified.

In court, Buchanan appeared thin and weary. The Vietnam veteran wore the same suit and khaki shirt both days of the trial. His salt-and-pepper hair and beard looked in need of a trim. He kept his head bowed through most of the trial. He was not called to testify.

Buchanan’s other attorney, Warren Conway, told the jury at trial’s end that the Taser videos had weighed on his mind for two years. “I’ve been waiting for the opportunity,” Conway said in closing arguments, “to show it to people who can make a difference.”

Prosecutor George Huffman had the final word: “The fact is that this defendant grabbed a baseball bat and charged at Sgt. Podlin. Accountability in this case is finding him guilty of aggravated assault on a police officer because that’s the crime he has committed.”

To return a guilty verdict, Judge Roger T. Clark instructed the jury, they would have to find Buchanan attacked a police officer with a deadly weapon, intending to seriously harm or kill him and not in self-defense.

Instead, the jury found Buchanan guilty of simple assault, a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. Clark set Buchanan’s sentencing for Thursday.

Huffman, who said he always respects a jury’s verdict, concluded, “I believe the defense made an argument that a reasonable person wouldn’t have been able to identify (Podlin) as a law enforcement officer and, therefore, that element of the crime was missing.” 

By ANITA LEE – calee@sunherald.com

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