Ex-officer pleads guilty to assault of black man, gets 12 months probation

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WSPA) – A former Asheville police officer pleaded guilty to beating a black man in a case that sparked anger in the community after video of the incident was leaked to the media months after it happened.

Christopher Hickman was facing serious charges and possible prison time.

Friday, details were announced of a plea deal Hickman reached with the Bumcombe County District Attorney that sentenced him to one year supervised probation and community service.

The deal has community activist and NAACP-Asheville Criminal Justice Chairman Dee Williams concerned the way the deal was handled will lead to more community division.

Body camera video from the incident showed Hickman attacking Johnnie Rush in August 2017.

The video shows Hickman shocking and hitting Johnnie Rush with his fists while Hickman was arresting Rush for jaywalking.

Hickman was charged with assault by strangulation, assault inflicting serious injury and making threats.

Williams said the deal struck Friday is rare.

“This is the first time restorative justice has been used by our district attorneys office. To top that off this is the first time in the United States restorative justice has ever been used when a police officer was ever seen on film beating a suspect who is black,” Williams told 7News. “It’s highly unusual.”

Restorative justice involves the ex officer and the assault victim meeting face to face. That’s something District Attorney Todd Williams said already happened where Hickman took responsibility for his actions and apologized.

The goal is to bring healing and transformation to both parties involved.

Dee Williams believes the deal didn’t consider healing for the community.

“It’s just created even more community distrust,” she said.

If Hickman fulfills the conditions of his probation then his felony charges will be dropped and they could possibly be expunged from his record.

“I think Mr. Hickman was the preeminent concern of this whole restorative justice movement,” Dee Williams said. “I’m just afraid this gentleman will go somewhere else, put a badge on, and hurt someone else.”

Last year, Rush and the city of Asheville reached a $650,000 settlement.

The district attorney mentioned Rush’s arrest on drug charges months after the beating and how it complicated the process.

After Friday’s hearing, Rush had no comment.

Here’s the statement of DA Todd Williams: 

“On August 25, 2017, as captured on body-cam immediately following his assault, Mr. Johnnie Rush repeatedly questioned his assailant. He essentially asked then Asheville Police Officer Christopher Hickman, “How was I supposed to comply with your orders while you were assaulting me?” And, “How did you think I had a weapon?”  

Upon release from the hospital, but still in Hickman’s custody, Mr. Rush continued to engage Hickman, sincerely seeking to understand, through various questions, “How did this happen?”

After Mr. Hickman was charged, I consulted with Mr. Rush about his feelings and what justice could look like for him in this case. Upon reflection, Mr. Rush stated that what was most important to him was that the violation of his rights be recognized, that he receive an apology, and, if possible, that no one else should experience what he experienced.  

With Mr. Rush’s wishes foremost in mind, and with recognition of the many limitations of our justice system — especially in cases of police misconduct — I initiated a restorative justice prosecution.

For me, restorative justice describes a process of mediation between victims and their perpetrators that can offer healing and transformation. Restorative justice requires admission of responsibility by the perpetrator, and a commitment to follow through on actions to minimize further harm.

I believe this case is the first restorative justice prosecution of police excessive use of force in the nation. This District Attorney’s Office will continue to engage in ground-breaking restorative practices to better serve victims and to facilitate community healing.

Through this restorative process Mr. Rush had the opportunity to receive answers to many of his questions stemming from August 25, 2017. In a direct, mediated conversation last fall, Mr. Rush and Mr. Hickman discussed what happened. Mr. Hickman answered questions at length, took responsibility, and offered an apology.  The following are just two excerpts from that conversation. 

In response to a question posed by Mr. Rush, Mr. Hickman stated:  “I pretty much left you with no choice and I left myself with no choice on how I’m supposed to react and that’s not what I want to do for either one of us, but that’s on me that’s what I did and that’s stuff I should have done better and I’m sorry about that and I’m sorry that that situation happened and I’m sorry that the mistakes that I made made it get to that point.”

At the close of the conversation Mr. Rush stated:  “I learned a lot from this experience . . .  like I just said I am more at peace.”

I thank Mr. Hickman for voluntarily participating in this process, which continues, and his attorney, Mr. Thomas Amburgey, for supporting Mr. Hickman’s participation.

Throughout, Mr. Rush had the pro bono legal assistance of renowned civil rights attorney James “Fergie” Ferguson, an Asheville native practicing law out of Charlotte.  

Mr. Jon Powell of the Campbell University Restorative Justice Clinic provided assistance.  I thank him and his team for taking on this challenge and for his experience and knowledge in guiding the process.  

I commend Mr. Rush for his bravery and commitment to making a better future not just for himself but for all by pursuing restorative justice.

This process has been months in progress and will take many more months. My thoughts are with Mr. Rush and I wish him peace and privacy as this process and his healing continue.

*After pleading guilty as charged, Mr. Hickman was convicted of Assault by StrangulationAssault Inflicting Serious Injury, and Communicating Threats, Mr. Hickman was placed on supervised probation for 12 months by Superior Court Judge William Coward.  Mr. Hickman will perform community service and will comply with continued restorative justice events as directed by Mr. Powell.  If while on supervised probation Mr. Hickman violates no law, and complies with all requirements of his probation, his conviction will be dismissed by the court at the expiration of his supervised probation pursuant to N.C.G.S. 15A-1341(a4). “

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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