Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Baset stood from his chair, pointed his finger across the courtroom, and told the jury, “that man right there, in the gray tie, is Metropolitan Police Department Officer Terence Sutton. We are here today because he murdered Karon Hylton, a 20-year-old resident of our city.”

On the first day of trial for two MPD officers charged in Hylton’s death, Baset laid out the government’s case against Sutton and his supervisor, Lt. Andrew Zabavsky. Sutton is charged with second degree murder of Hylton (also known as Hylton-Brown) and obstruction of justice, and Zabavsky is charged with obstruction; both men are charged with conspiracy.

In an unmarked police car, Sutton chased Hylton-Brown for three “dizzying” minutes as he rode a moped through streets and alleys in the Kennedy Street NW area, Baset said, and the chase ultimately forced him into an oncoming vehicle. There is no evidence that Sutton’s vehicle struck Hylton-Brown or the moped he was riding, Baset acknowledged. But the officer’s reckless disregard for safety and of MPD’s General Order caused the young Black man’s death, the prosecutor said.

“Karon’s crime?” Baset continued, “Driving a moped on a sidewalk without a helmet.” In the final 10 seconds of the chase, Sutton turned off his emergency lights as he pursued Karon into a narrow alley. Baset played a snippet of police body camera footage showing the moment the driver struck the moped, sending Hylton-Brown flying through the air and onto the pavement.

Karen Hylton, Karon’s mother, sat in the gallery rocking back and forth as the video played, holding her hand over her mouth.

“That, whether you wear a badge or not, is second degree murder,” Baset said.

Then he pointed his finger again—this time at Zabavsky: “And that man, in the gold tie, is Metropolitan Police Department Lieutenant Andrew Zabavsky. In the aftermath of this fatal crash, he conspired with Sutton to bury this all under a rock, to avoid this very day.”

In Baset’s telling, Sutton recklessly pursued Hylton-Brown in an unauthorized vehicle chase, and in the hours following, conspired with Zabavsky to shield themselves from culpability by ignoring witnesses, failed to secure the scene or call vehicle crash investigators, obscured facts in a report to their supervising commander, and wrote a false report.

Baset cited MPD’s General Orders, which prohibit officers from engaging in vehicle pursuits for traffic violations. He said at least two of the three officers in the car with Sutton on the night of Oct. 23, 2020, considered calling off the chase. Officer Carlos Tejera “asked if it was better to get an arrest warrant for Hylton” because the officers knew where the young man lived and hung out. Officer Ahmed Al-Sharwi “thought the whole thing was ridiculous,” Baset said.

Michael Hannon, Sutton’s attorney, presented a different, and at times confusing, version of events in his opening statement. He began with a history lesson for the jury, referring to the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse as a “hallowed place.” Hannon started in 1780, when D.C. was still part of Maryland, then moved to 1790 when Congress designated D.C. as the nation’s capital, then to the 1868 dedication of a nearby statue of Abraham Lincoln, and finally he came to 1950, and mistakenly said President Herbert Hoover laid the courthouse’s cornerstone “on the same day that the Korean War began, and close in time to my birthday.” Actually, President Harry Truman laid the cornerstone.

In any case, Hannon went on to describe how Sutton became a police officer to follow in his father’s footsteps and listed off the commendations he received while working in the Fourth District, which Hannon described as “an area where in an instant a flash mob could gather and threaten the safety of officers because of its high crime rate.”

Hannon described Sutton’s specialized unit, the Crime Suppression Team, which patrols crime hotspots in unmarked cars. Hannon also told jurors that Sutton was known in the Fourth District as “Tattoos” because of the sleeves of tattoos that cover both of his arms.

Ultimately, Hannon said, Sutton, Zabavsky, and the other officers were obligated, according to MPD’s General Orders, to conduct a “Terry stop,” which allows officers to stop someone who they have reasonable suspicion to believe is “armed and dangerous.” Hannon said another officer, Kathryn Pitt-O’Neil, had told them that she saw Hylton-Brown nearly get into a fight earlier that day, then leave the area and later return. Prosecutors said he was looking for his keys; Hannon said the officers suspected he was coming back to “retaliate.”

Hannon attempted to shift the blame onto Hylton-Brown, who he said “made a choice not to wear a helmet” while riding a moped in the “center of a high-crime area” and chose not to stop for police. As he replayed the body camera video of the seconds leading up to the fatal crash, Hannon said “had he turned just a bit more, had he braked just a bit more, this never would have have happened. ‘Why’ is the question you need to ask yourself.”

As for the obstruction charge, Baset showed the jury a photo of Hylton-Brown on the street after the crash. He had what appeared to be a gash on the side of his forehead, and blood pooled beneath his head. Baset compared the photo to Sutton’s description of the injury in his report as “superficial abrasions.” Hannon countered by showing the medical examiner’s report, which also described some of his injuries as “abrasions.”

Zabavsky’s lawyer, Christopher Zampogna, will give his opening statement Wednesday.

Current and former sworn members of MPD are likely to testify, including Assistant Chief Wilfredo Manlapaz, a former Fourth District commander, who is now in charge of the Internal Affairs Bureau. The trial is expected to last three weeks.