Springfield police officer Gregg Bigda didn’t testify at his federal civil rights trial, but jurors heard from him just the same. Prosecutors played videos of Bigda interrogating two male Latino youths in separate holding cells, telling one that he could crush the teenager’s skull and “[expletive] get away with it.”
Was it a crime? The jury said no.
On Monday, Bigda, 52, was acquitted of all criminal charges he faced in the Feb. 27, 2016, incident, which became a flashpoint for critics of Springfield’s police force and contributed to the Justice Department’s decision to open a civil rights investigation into the department’s narcotics unit.
The Springfield investigation was the only Justice Department probe of a police force authorized during the Trump administration.
The jury also acquitted Bigda, a former narcotics detective who is white, of using excessive force against a Latino male and filing a false police report.
On Tuesday, Bigda’s lawyers released a statement saying their client is “grateful that the jury stayed focused on the evidence throughout this trial and rendered a true and impartial verdict.”
But his acquittal also sparked anger and disappointment. The Greater Springfield branch of the NAACP denounced the criminal justice system for failing to “convict a white man for brutalizing non-white youth on the basis of the stereotypical depiction of Black and Latino males as threatening hoodlums, thugs, and criminals.”
The jury’s decision “only highlights the perceived value of Black and Latino life and reinforces the stereotypes, which justify racial animus against our males, their disenfranchisement, abuse, brutalization, and mass incarceration,” the group said in a statement.
Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for Massachusetts when Bigda was indicted, said Tuesday that he knew the case would be difficult to win. The videos of Bigda interrogating the juveniles were “appalling,” he said, but there were questions about whether prosecutors could meet the legal standard for conviction and persuade jurors that his conduct was so egregious that it “shocks the conscience.”
“When you have officers that you perceive as bad apples — as the ones who have crossed the line — you have to do those cases even if they are not airtight,” Lelling said. “Inevitably, you are going to win some of them and you are going to lose some of them.”
The alleged civil rights violations against Bigda focused on his actions during a confrontation with the three teenagers in Palmer, a town east of Springfield, and later while he interrogated two of them. Only the interrogations were captured on video.
The incident began when another narcotics officer, Steven M. Vigneault, left an unmarked police SUV running outside a pizzeria in Springfield, and four teenagers jumped inside and drove off.
Police pursued the teenagers into Palmer, where prosecutors alleged that Bigda kicked a handcuffed teenager in the face as he lay on the ground and spat on him. Vigneault, who resigned from his job in 2016, was initially accused of kicking another one of the teenagers, but prosecutors dropped the criminal case against him last year.
During Bigda’s trial, another officer, Luke Cournoyer, testified that Vigneault had confessed to him that he kicked one of the juveniles, according to The Republican of Springfield. Cournoyer testified under a grant of immunity, court records show.
Howard Friedman, a lawyer who represents one of the juveniles in a civil case, said he believed Bigda’s interrogations broke the law. During his questioning, Bigda threatened to plant drugs on one of the teenagers and bragged he could lie with impunity.
“You would think it would shock the conscience, but apparently the jury didn’t find it did so beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said.