Deadly force used by Newark officer Jovanny Crespo in 2019 car chase deemed unjustified by Essex County jury

Conviction follows marathon deliberation on police bodycam footage, testing guidelines for police use of deadly force in New Jersey.

Newark police officer Jovanny Crespo was in a volatile car chase on Jan. 28, 2019. The incident, captured on police body cameras, started at 11:17 p.m. Officer Valderia Sanchez pulled over Gregory C. Griffin, driving a Chrysler 300 with Andrew J. Dixon as his passenger.

Spotting a gun in the vehicle, Sanchez instructed Griffin to switch off the engine and raise his hands. Griffin instead accelerated away, leading to a frantic chase joined by Officer Crespo.

Crespo, riding shotgun with his partner, Hector Ortiz, got involved in the pursuit. As the chase escalated, reaching up to 50 mph, Crespo hopped out of his patrol car three times to fire at Griffin and Dixon.

Crespo Used Unjustified Deadly Force

The jury deemed Crespo’s repeated use of deadly force unjustified under the state Attorney General’s guidelines. These rules restrict a police officer’s use of deadly force to instances where the officer or another person is in immediate danger of death or serious bodily harm. The video footage played a crucial role in the deliberation, showing Crespo firing at the Chrysler 300 even as it tried to escape.

The incident ended tragically when Crespo fired two shots into the slightly open passenger door of the Chrysler. Both Griffin and Dixon were shot once in the head. Griffin died at the scene, while Dixon, who survived the shooting, succumbed to his injuries later in a separate car accident.

Hovanny Crespo: The Verdict

On Wednesday, an Essex County jury convicted Crespo for his actions during the pursuit. After nearly six days of intense deliberations, the jury of seven women and five men found Crespo guilty on all six counts of aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, official misconduct, and possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

Crespo, who had been stoic as the foreman read the verdict, later dropped his head on the defense table while family members sobbed. Judge Michael L. Ravin ordered Crespo to be detained despite pleas from the defense attorney Patrick Toscano to allow him to remain free until sentencing, citing a risk of flight.

Trial’s Marathon Deliberations

The jury deliberation, which started on June 23, was prolonged for various reasons. Illness struck one of the jurors, while three others were excused for personal reasons and replaced by alternates.

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The process was further delayed after the jury reported that the final alternate had pre-existing knowledge of the case, having viewed the police body camera footage previously. Despite this setback, the judge expressed confidence in the jury’s ability to deliver a fair verdict and proceeded with the trial.

Crespo’s Prosecution and Defense

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office presented the case to the grand jury, arguing that Crespo was never in immediate danger and that his decision to fire three times was unjustified and unauthorized. Despite the gun in the car, they argued, the vehicle was moving away from police throughout the chase, posing no immediate threat to Crespo.

The defense, however, held a different viewpoint. Patrick Toscano, Crespo’s attorney, argued that the entire chase should be considered in assessing imminent danger. He suggested that the two men in the car posed a risk to Crespo and others, even if they were trying to evade the police. Toscano argued, “All situations are different. Certain situations you can’t plan for,”

Despite the arguments, the jury was ultimately convinced by the prosecution’s narrative, relying heavily on the body cam footage.

Trial’s Aftermath

Following the verdict, Acting Essex County Prosecutor Ted Stephens said that no one is above or below the law, even sworn law enforcement officers. Crespo’s actions left him “dumbfounded,” he admitted.

On the other hand, Toscano released a statement expressing disappointment in the verdict. He criticized how jury deliberation was conducted and pre-trial rulings regarding evidence. He pledged to appeal the decision, believing that the trial court errors demanded an immediate reversal of this verdict.

What’s Next For Jovanny Crespo

Crespo now faces 10 to 30 years in prison for the aggravated manslaughter charge alone. Additional time is likely for the aggravated assault and official misconduct charges. Judge Ravin scheduled sentencing for September 15. As the courtroom braced for the sentencing phase, the victims’ families quietly exited the courtroom.