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Witness accounts vary about phone flap

Jurors are left to decide whose conduct was outrageous: the couple taking a cell phone call at the movies, or the officer who asked them to leave.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published June 22, 2005


LARGO - Warronnica Harris didn't yell fire in a movie theater. But she did answer her cell phone in one.

That phone call led to a confrontation with a police officer, who asked Harris to shush her call as the movie Catwoman was starting at a BayWalk theater in St. Petersburg last summer.

The officer then ejected Harris and her boyfriend, Terrell "KC" Tolson, from the theater. That led to a spat in the theater hallway in which Harris and Tolson were pepper sprayed and arrested.

Prosecutors elected not to pursue charges against Harris but did charge Tolson with disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer.

Tolson's trial began Tuesday and extended late into the night. If convicted of the charges, Tolson faces a maximum of 14 months in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Testimony likely will pick up again this morning.

Prosecutors argued that Tolson and his girlfriend resisted the officer's efforts to first quiet them, then to remove them from the theater. Tolson then clenched his fist at the officer, prompting the pepper spray.

But defense attorney Dwight Dudley countered that witness statements varied wildly. He suggested the officer was overly aggressive and ruined a movie night for the couple, who have been together six years and share a child.

"This was not the night at the movies they anticipated," Dudley told jurors in opening remarks, later adding: "There is a truckload of reasonable doubt in this case."

The trial began with state witnesses recalling how they arrived at a fairly packed movie theater for the 10:10 p.m. showing on July 24, 2004. The crowd was louder than at most movies, witnesses said.

Officer John Douglas, a 16-year police veteran, was working off-duty security at the complex. Officers working the BayWalk detail wear their uniforms and maintain arrest powers.

Douglas testified Tuesday that he entered the theater just after 10 p.m. after a moviegoer complained that someone was pointing a laser at the screen.

Douglas began walking along the side of the theater as the previews were showing. He asked several people to stop talking on their cell phones. He didn't find who had been pointing the laser.

At one point he approached Harris, who had received a cell phone call from her mother. Harris says her mother was calling to report a family emergency, that Harris' brother had fallen through a glass table.

Douglas testified that Harris refused to stop talking on the phone. "She stated she could talk as much as she wanted to," Douglas testified.

The officer said he told Harris she would have to leave. She refused, and Tolson entered the dispute.

Douglas said Tolson called him a "fat f---" who "needed to go to the gym." He also threatened to "kick my a--," Douglas testified.

By this time, the movie had started, but much of the crowd was watching the confrontation. State witnesses said they cheered on Tolson and booed the officer. Douglas was concerned enough that he called on his radio for backup.

Douglas persuaded the couple to get up from their seats. State witnesses testified that Tolson waved his hands in the air to the crowd and said something derogatory about the police.

Douglas said that he began escorting the couple through a hallway, but that Tolson was becoming more agitated.

"The more we walked, the more hostile he got," Douglas testified.

Douglas said Tolson then clenched his fists. "I thought he was fixing to hit me, and that's when I pepper sprayed him," Douglas testified.

Douglas and an usher also testified that Harris swung her soft drink at him, though he blocked it, sending it spilling to the floor. The officer pepper sprayed her. Both were handcuffed and taken to jail.

Three people who were sitting in front of Tolson and Harris testified that Tolson and Harris were disrespectful and defiant to the officer.

"They responded quite angrily and spoke in expletives," said Maureen McGough, 22, who is the daughter of another St. Petersburg police officer. She described Douglas' demeanor that night as "fairly restrained."

Witnesses for the defense could not have told a more different story.

Garlynn Boyd, who coached Tolson in track in high school, said she happened to go to the same movie that night. She saw Tolson in the concession area, then sat in the row in front of him.

Boyd said she didn't hear or see Harris on the cell phone. The officer approached the couple unprovoked, she testified, and was rude and demanded they leave.

She said Tolson addressed the officer as "sir" and never used expletives. She said the officer grabbed Tolson twice, which countered testimony from state witnesses.

Boyd said Tolson was carrying a tray of food out of the theater and, therefore, could not have waved his hands, as the state witnesses said.

Boyd was so upset by the incident that she complained to theater managers and police. Though she tried to call the police internal affairs unit, she said she never got a call back.

Witnesses who testified for the state said police officials were eager to interview them.

[Last modified June 22, 2005, 01:08:17]


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