BY JULIE MANGANIS
---- — SALEM — Prosecutors say Aparicio Smart was trying to commit “suicide by cop” when he lunged toward Salem police officers and members of a regional SWAT team on the morning of Aug. 7, 2012.
But Smart’s lawyer says police actually made the situation worse when they fired Tasers at the troubled man, sending him into spasms of pain that led to him jerking around “like a fish on a line” before he was pulled out a window, covered in cuts.
It will be up to a Salem District Court jury to decide whether Smart, 23, of 7 March St., intended to lunge at the officers with two kitchen knives and is, therefore, guilty of five counts of assault with a dangerous weapon.
Prosecutor Lynsey Legier said Smart wanted to end his life that day, first by trying to hang himself with a piece of wire.
Fortunately, she said, his brother found him in time. The brother convinced Smart to rest on a bed, while his mother called 911. Two Salem police officers responded to the call.
“Mr. Smart looked very out of it,” Legier told the jury. “He wasn’t focused on anything going on. He had a look or stare like there wasn’t anything going on.”
Defense lawyer Ray Buso said that’s when the first mistake was made. As the two officers consulted on the best way to approach the situation, Smart got up, walked past them and out of the bedroom. He went to the kitchen and grabbed two knives.
Then, he barricaded himself in a downstairs apartment where relatives lived.
Legier said Smart pulled down the shades as officers tried to convince him to drop the knives. “They were unsuccessful,” she said.
That’s when Salem police decided to call in the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, which has a SWAT team.
Buso suggested to jurors that it was a mistake to call in a team more accustomed to dealing with violent criminals holding hostages than with a troubled young man on the verge of suicide.
“Let’s try to resolve a mental health suicide issue with this,” Buso said, holding up a photo of a SWAT team member in full gear.
“Their plan did not involve calling in a doctor,” Buso said, suggesting that the response contradicts the agency’s own policies on dealing with mentally ill suspects.
Legier said police called NEMLEC because the agency has “less than lethal” weapons like Tasers that Salem police do not possess.
“They were called in by Salem police to try to help the defendant,” said Legier. “That was the goal of the Salem police. They didn’t have the resources of less-than-lethal force to keep Mr. Smart from harming himself.”
Two teams were set up, one outside a door and one outside a window. At some point, the decision was made to “breach and hold,” meaning the officers would open the door and window just enough to see what Smart was doing.
The officers saw Smart crouched down, holding the knives.
But while Legier described him as having a “look on his face not of someone scared of the officers but of someone who wanted to die,” Buso said the jury will see images of Smart crying, in almost a fetal position.
Those images were captured with cameras that are mounted on some Taser guns.
It took several attempts to get a reaction from Smart, said the prosecutor.
But Buso said that is because just one of the two barbs on the Taser struck Smart, with 25,000 volts of electricity — enough to inflict pain but not enough to immobilize him. That left him jumping around in pain, Buso said.
Legier said Smart then flew toward the officers and through the broken window “like Superman.”
But Buso said Smart was being jolted around by the Taser’s current and then cowered before being pulled out.
“The electricity went through the head and the body of this young man who is suicidal. He’s like a puppet on the string. He drops one of the knives. He jerks, like a fish on the line, with the electricity going through him,” Buso said. “All he can feel is pain. Those were the choices that those officers made that day.”
“Did this young man have the intent to hurt those officers with that knife, or was he simply reacting to what they were doing?” Buso asked the jury.
The trial will resume tomorrow.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.