Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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UPDATE, Nov. 4, 5:15 p.m.: Judge Paul Friedman reversed his initial order Wednesday barring Karen Hylton from the courtroom. On Thursday, Friedman said there wasn’t enough evidence to support defense attorneys’ claims, DCist’s Jenny Gathright reports. Original story follows:

As body camera footage played in the courtroom showing her son laying in the street, gasping for breath as blood poured from his head, Karen Hylton started to cry.

Her son, Karon Hylton-Brown, was killed in a police vehicle chase on Oct. 23, 2020. He was riding a moped when Metropolitan Police Department Officer Terence Sutton chased him in an unmarked car through residential streets and alleys. Sutton is currently on trial for second degree murder. He and his supervisor, Lt. Andrew Zabavsky, are also charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy for their alleged attempts to cover up their actions in the vehicle pursuit.

Hylton sat through the first two weeks of the trial as witnesses described vivid details of the fatal crash and attorneys have played body camera footage as evidence. At times, when the images have become overwhelming, Hylton has excused herself from the courtroom. Each time, Sutton’s attorney, Michael Hannon, has complained to the judge that her “outbursts” could unfairly influence the jury. Hannon has also claimed that Hylton has been “making eye contact” with people on the defense team (there was some dispute whether she was actually looking at a TV monitor positioned behind the defense team’s table). He also reported that Hylton was seen hugging the paramedic who treated her son and who testified this week.

On Wednesday, Judge Paul Friedman ruled that Hylton is no longer allowed in the courtroom. Instead, she will be allowed to watch from a monitor in a different courtroom.

Hylton’s attorney, Charlie Gerstein, argued that Friedman’s decision violates the First Amendment and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. Friedman said he understands Hylton’s reaction, but Sutton and Zabavsky’s right to a fair trial outweighs her right to be in the courtroom. “There are too many different instances that have been raised, and it’s cumulative,” Friedman said. “I understand her reaction, but she can react in another courtroom.”

“I’m not allowed to cry?” Hylton said outside the courtroom Wednesday after the judge’s order. “This man killed my child, and I’m not allowed to cry about it? Something is off with that, something is wrong.

“Y’all can kiss my ass with that,” she said as she walked away.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ahmed Baset asked the judge to reconsider, and Gerstein filed a petition with the Court of Appeals. Gerstein notes in the petition that other members of the public sitting in the gallery also gasped when particularly explicit footage of Hylton-Brown’s injuries was shown.

“Barring Karen from the courtroom is illegal, unconstitutional, and wrong,” Gerstein tells City Paper. “It’s outrageous.”

Throughout the previous two days of trial, the jury heard from Hylton-Brown’s friend Kevon Mason; a paramedic who treated him, Gonthel Tolliver; and two sworn MPD officers, Tyler Toth and Carlos Tejera. Toth is a patrol officer who witnessed the collision but was not involved. Tejera was riding in the front passenger seat next to Sutton on the night in question, and provided arguably the most damning testimony so far.

In the midst of the pursuit, when it became clear Hylton-Brown was not going to stop for the officers, Tejera said he didn’t believe there was any urgent reason to continue. Instead, he suggested the officers apply for an arrest warrant, as MPD General Orders require, he testified.

“We could have just taken a police report, returned to the station, went home, and done the warrant at a later date,” Tejera said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Risa Berkower played clips from Tejera’s body camera, including the moment when a citizen’s vehicle smashes into Hylton-Brown’s moped as the officers are in pursuit. On the witness stand, Tejera looked away at the moment of impact.

Why? Berkower asked. “Because I don’t want to watch,” Tejera said.

Tejera, who has been an MPD officer for about seven years, said the incident still affects him psychologically and has fogged his memory. On the scene that night, he said he was “in shock” and was “trying to hold it together.” He told the jury he felt “like somebody I knew just died in front of me.”

Toth, the patrol officer, happened to turn onto Kennedy Street NW moments before the fatal collision. He testified that he expected Zabavsky, as the lieutenant and highest ranking officer on scene, to direct subordinate officers on what to do, but that never happened. He also said a junior officer had started collecting notes in preparation for writing the report. But instead, Sutton was assigned to write it, which was unusual. Typically, junior officers write traffic incident reports, Toth said, and members of the Crime Suppression Team, like Sutton, typically only write it when there’s an arrest involved.

He testified that he saw Hylton-Brown vomit while he lay on the street and could hear his “guttural” and “harsh” breathing while officers and paramedics tended to him. Clips from Toth’s body camera showed Hylton-Brown’s body convulse as he gasped for air.

Tolliver, the paramedic, described a similar scene. She testified that Hylton-Brown’s injuries were so severe that they immediately loaded him into an ambulance and rushed to MedStar Washington Hospital Center. She rode in the back of the ambulance with him, and said he didn’t respond when she rubbed his sternum and remained unconscious when she stuck him with an IV.

“He was making noises but nothing that you could understand,” Tolliver said.

Mason, who went to school with Hylton-Brown and grew up with him in the neighborhood around Kennedy Street NW, described how he and two other friends were hanging out at the corner of 5th and Kennedy streets NW while Hylton-Brown rode around on a moped looking for his keys.

He told the jury that he watched as Sutton tried to cut off Hylton-Brown with his unmarked car at the intersection. Hylton-Brown maneuvered around the police car, Mason testified, and he heard Hylton-Brown ask the officers twice: “What the fuck y’all chasing me for?” Mason said he didn’t hear officers respond, but he could see Sutton with a “slight grin” on his face.

Minutes after the chase began, Mason said he heard a crash. He and his two friends rushed toward the sound. Body camera footage played during Mason’s testimony shows one of the friends, Reggie Ruffin, holding Hylton-Brown’s hand while paramedics tend to him. “I got you, bruh,” Ruffin said.

Mason testified that he’s tried to forget that night, and had not told anybody what he saw until May of this year, when he spoke with investigators. “I didn’t want to remember it again,” he said in court. “It’s a bad memory.”

But asked if he was able to forget his dying friend’s last words, Mason said “no.” He didn’t say what those words were.