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March 25, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 25, 2005

Two sides of Albert Hopkins Two sides of Albert Hopkins (March 25, 2005)

Demonstrates vulnerability, anger on witness stand

by Bill D'Agostino

Visitors sitting in a San Jose courtroom this week might have thought Albert Hopkins on trial, not the two Palo Alto police officers who struck him with batons on July 13, 2003.

The 61-year-old black Palo Alto man faced aggressive questioning from defense attorneys, who tried to show that Hopkins' suspicious and hostile actions prompted the beating that night.

Asian-American officers Craig Lee, 42, and Michael Kan, 27, are accused of striking and pepper-spraying Hopkins without just cause. They could face three years in prison if they are convicted of a felony charge, assault under the color of authority.

During his three days on the witness stand, there appeared to be two different Albert Hopkinses. During direct examination, he was considerate and calm, even showing a vulnerable side.

Hopkins immediately started crying on Tuesday morning when Deputy District Attorney Peter Waite snapped open one of the expandable steel batons used in the beating. Superior Court Judge Andrea Bryan offered Hopkins a box of tissues, which he declined.

But while getting grilled by the officers' two attorneys, Hopkins transformed into an angry man, who smirked and defied the defense attorneys. They used their questions to draw out his temper. Hopkins was defiant and exasperated when attorneys challenged his version of past events.

"Where do you guys get this stuff?" he asked at one point.

"We got it from the officers who were there," said attorney Harry Stern, who represents Kan.

Numerous times, the attorneys reminded Hopkins not to interrupt them or speak out of turn and to only directly answer their queries. Hopkins was also frequently flustered and unsure of some of the evening's events.

Hopkins repeatedly noted that he was doing nothing wrong. He was never charged with a crime in connection to the incident.

The high-profile trial is being closely watched in Palo Alto, as it has provoked allegations that the Palo Alto Police Department has a racial bias. Hopkins believes the officers only questioned him because he was black.

"My greatest hope in this is that somehow nationwide people become aware of police behavior and that there is a change, especially in Palo Alto," he said on Wednesday.

The officers argue Hopkins was sitting in a high-crime area and had spooked neighbors.

At the time of the controversial incident, Hopkins was living in his car, estranged from his wife, and was working as a desk clerk at the Marriott. (He now works at Gunn High School.)

Hopkins was parked at the corner of Oxford Avenue and El Camino Real in Palo Alto, a foot on the dashboard, when he first saw Lee drive past at about 10:30 p.m. He said he was immediately nervous.

"I've been black a long time and I had a feeling this man would do something out of the ordinary," Hopkins testified.

After Lee circled the area twice, the officer parked behind Hopkins and briefly watched him. When the officer approached, Hopkins immediately stood up outside of his blue Honda, opening the door with force. Lee accused Hopkins of trying to hit him with the car door, but Hopkins denied the claim. The officer ordered Hopkins to get back in and close the door. Hopkins returned inside but defiantly left the door partly open, he said.

When questioned about the amount of power he used to open the car door, Hopkins said, "That's not enough to beat a man."

From the beginning of the tense exchange, Hopkins said he was angry. He immediately demanded to know why he was being questioned, believing it was because of his skin color. He even cursed at Lee, using the F-word, he admitted.

Later in the encounter, Lee demanded identification. The officer had already confirmed Hopkins' identity through a check of his license plate, but wanted further confirmation.

In response, Hopkins said he started rummaging for his driver's license in the glove compartment and around the clothing-cluttered car. But when he saw Lee reach toward his gun, Hopkins said he decided to put his hands in his lap instead.

"I was not about to risk my life," Hopkins recalled. "I have three children and they need a father."

"Did you think he was going to shoot you for speaking?" asked attorney Craig Brown, who represents Lee.

"People have been shot for less," Hopkins replied.

Things had settled down when Kan arrived. The two officers consulted and then Kan tried unsuccessfully to pull Hopkins out of his car. Hopkins said he got out on his own and stood up, and then the officers immediately began beating him "like sharks going after blood in the water."

That narrative is contrary to the story from the officers, whose attorneys claim they issued orders for Hopkins to get out of the car and on the ground prior to using force. Kan's attorney also claims Hopkins tried to pull the officer into the car.

Other than trying to fend off the baton blows, Hopkins said he made no aggressive acts. "I stood and I took their beating," he said, demonstrating how he hunched over, his palms facing up to try to deflect the strikes.

In August 2003, Hopkins had knee surgery and still walks with a bit of a limp.

The trial, which began on Monday, is expected to last three weeks. One of the incident's two witnesses began testifying on Wednesday.

Bay City News contributed to this report.

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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