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Under Attorney General Peter Neronha, are those carrying badges entitled to a different tier of justice?



I would say that there is not [a two-tiered system] because I can point you to cases where we have made the same charging decision when the person is not a police officer,” said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha.

Brian Amaral at the Providence Journal published an account of Providence Police Officer Francisco Guerra assaulting Victor Rivera “outside a 16-year-old girl’s birthday party on June 8.” According to the story, the Judge in the case accepted the recommendation from the prosecutors at the Attorney General’s office to plea the assault out as a misdemeanor, before she realized the full extent of Rivera’s injuries.

Rivera had “had spent three days in the hospital and still suffered from headaches after Officer Francisco Guerra punched him in the face – breaking a bone in his face, knocking him over and making his head hit the pavement,” writes Amaral. Amaral noted in his story that Rivera is still suffering from headaches, months after the assault.

Amaral quoted Judge Christine Jabour as saying, “I’m sorry, but I had no idea the extent of the serious bodily injury. It’s a mystery to me how this was charged as a simple assault” and, “It’s a travesty of justice, let me tell you right now. If [Rivera] spoke before I imposed the sentence, I would have never allowed it. Ever.”

The case was prosecuted by Steven Dambruch, State Attorney General Peter Neronha‘s top prosecutor, and a man Neronha has consistently praised and defended, even when Dambruch failed to get any indictments following the assaults by correctional officers on peaceful protesters outside the Wyatt Correctional Facility last August.

In the wake of Dambruch’s failure to indict, several victims of and witnesses to the assaults called to testify before the grand jury expressed the concern that Dambruch went into the case with an agenda to go easy on the guards and cast the non-violent protesters as bad actors.

“They clearly had an agenda,” Jessica Rosner told me as she was leaving a meeting with Neronha where she learned there would be no charges in the case. Rosner was a victim of the Wyatt guards. “Feel free to drive your truck into a crowd. If you’re an officer, not a problem.”

“It just shows that law enforcement is not held to the same standards that we, regular citizens, are, when peacefully protesting,” said Christian Andrade, leaving the same meeting, who was hit in the face with pepper spray by a Wyatt Correctional Officer. “The system is used not to preserve those rights, but to allow people who have violent intentions to harm people to just get away with it.”

“I got to know Peter Neronha on the campaign trail. I like him a lot. I think he’s a good person,” wrote former State Representative Aaron Regunburg on Facebook. Regunberg is a member of Never Again Action, one of the groups that organized the action outside the Wyatt when people were assaulted. “I also think that his administration is engaging in an unacceptable and dangerous pattern of holding law enforcement to a different standard – a ‘travesty of justice’ standard. From refusing to charge a prison guard who drove into a crowd of peaceful protestors, to giving a slap on the wrist to a cop who beat the shit out of a civilian, Neronha’s administration is not fulfilling its sworn mission to pursue justice and keep Rhode Islanders safe – and that’s not okay.”

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I met with Attorney General Neronha at his office in Providence to discuss the Francisco Guerra case and the Wyatt assaults.

“I don’t believe that there is a pattern,” said Neronha. “I don’t think that because when you look across the work we’re doing in the office, we’ve charged, just this year, four or five members of law enforcement with a crime, some of them are misdemeanors, some of them are felonies. Some are correctional officers, some are police officers.

“So I think that our track record in the office shows that we’re willing to charge police officers and correctional officers, whether they’re on duty or not, with misconduct – felony misconduct if it rises to that level, based on the law and the facts…

“So to me there’s no pattern. I understand the perception, given that this case just came down yesterday in the wake of what happened in the Wyatt case, but I don’t consider there to be a pattern,” continued Neronha.

“This is not to minimize the victim’s injuries at all. There are significant injuries, and that’s why the disposition in that case was not the disposition for a simple assault for somebody who has been charged with that the first time. The first time you come into court on a simple assault, absent unusual circumstances, if you’re a first time offender, as this guy was, you’re going out of there with a filing.”

A filing allows a person to have the conviction removed from their record after a year of good behavior.

The second conviction for simple assault would typically result in probation and the third time would typically result in a suspended sentence.

“This was not the typical first offender disposition because of the injuries,” said Neronha. “So they are substantial injuries. But what they are not, in our judgement, is serious bodily injury, because that’s defined by statute. And when you look at that statute, it requires three things. It either requires substantial risk of death, it requires protracted loss or extended loss of a bodily part, or it requires permanent disfigurement. And as we looked at the medical records, as we do in every case like this, we determined and Steve [Dambruch] determined that it didn’t rise to that level.”

I asked about the reaction of Judge Christine Jabour, who called the Guerra case a “travesty of justice.”

“I respect the court,” said Neronha, “But the reality here is that the Judge didn’t see the medical records, and that is not a court that handles felony cases. That is not a judge who has ever presided over a felony bodily assault case.

“I understand her reaction,” continued Neronha. “I listened to the transcript. She said, ‘Well, he was hospitalized for two days.’ But [while] not minimizing his injuries, if you look at the standard – permanent disfigurement, risk of death, or protracted loss of a bodily part or organ – this case doesn’t meet that standard.”

As to the idea of a two-tiered justice system, Neronha said that if we were to take a walk to the intake unit, “you would find cases of people who aren’t police officers, where we, on these same facts, don’t charge serious bodily injury.

“I would say that there is not [a two-tiered system] because I can point you to cases where we have made the same charging decision when the person is not a police officer.”

“The fact that we didn’t charge the felony doesn’t mean that this is not a serious case,” said Neronha. “I think this is a very serious case. I think this conduct is reprehensible. I think it is a very poor reflection on [Guerra] as a police officer. But we have to follow the law.”

I asked if there was any attempt to make sure that this offender does not continue his job as a police officer. I noted that as a condition of his plea, Providence City Councilor Luis Aponte was forced to step down from his seat.

“I think that’s a legitimate point,” said Neronha. “I look at public corruption cases very differently. I don’t know what the Providence Police Department is going to do with [Guerra], what job action they will take. I don’t look at it through that lens. I just don’t. To me public corruption cases are in a class by themselves. It’s the one place where I don’t think you should get all the opportunities everyone else has.”

“I think a lot of people see the police as part of the public corruption problem, though,” I countered. “I think people would prefer that police be held to a higher standard.”

“I don’t disagree with that,” said Neronha, “but I don’t believe that [Guerra] was treated less harshly because he was a police officer.”

“So the perception of a two-tiered system is based on bad timing, and the fact that Dambruch was associated with both cases?” I asked.

“Yes, absolutely,” said Neronha. “Sometimes it’s a perfect storm. I’m not stupid. When this happened yesterday, I knew there was going to be this kind of reaction. Let me just say this about Steve: If any one of my family members was a victim of a crime, I’d want the prosecutor to be Steve Dambruch. In my opinion there’s never been a finer prosecutor in the history of this state.”

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.