Testimony began Monday in the trial of Carlos Antonio Riley, a man accused of shooting a Durham police officer, whose case has become a touchpoint in the city’s racial-profiling debate.
Police Officer Kelly A. Stewart testified in Durham County Superior Court that a fight ensued after he pulled Riley’s car over in December 2012 and Riley revved up the engine and started to drive away.
Stewart was standing by the driver’s side door and reached to pull Riley out of the car, he said, when Riley pulled away and Stewart jumped onto the open door frame.
“I am hanging on for my life,” he said.
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Stewart, a Durham police investigator who has been on the force since 2007, was the first witness against Riley, 24, who is accused of shooting Stewart in the thigh with Stewart’s gun and leaving the scene.
Nia Wilson and about 14 other supporters sat in benches behind Riley during the afternoon proceedings.
Wilson, a community organizer and executive director of SpiritHouse, an East Durham nonprofit, said the case illustrates the concerns she and others have about police department racial profiling, police abuse and illegal searches.
Riley pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon in federal court in February 2014 and was sentenced to 10 years, a prosecutor said.
During opening arguments Monday, Assistant District Attorney Stormy Ellis said the evidence will show that Stewart pulled over a vehicle to give the driver a warning.
“But what happened in that vehicle only two people know,” Ellis said.
Stewart would describe in his testimony, Ellis told the jury, how Riley took the investigator’s badge, handcuffs and gun during the struggle.
“A struggle that left Investigator Stewart on the ground facing every officer’s greatest nightmare,” she said, “being shot during a traffic stop.”
Riley’s charges include robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault on a law enforcement officer inflicting serious injury, assault on a law enforcement officer with a vehicle and assault on a law enforcement officer with a gun.
Defense attorney Alex Charns told the jury that Riley was scared for his life and didn’t pull the trigger of the gun.
Stewart wasn’t wearing a uniform or driving a marked car, Charns said. He drew a gun on Riley and yelled, “I am going to shoot you! I am going to shoot you!” but using more profane language, Charns said
When Stewart pulled Riley over, he strayed from police department policy and didn’t call the traffic stop in, Charns said. The evidence will also show that the year before the stop, Stewart, who is black, stopped black motorists 76 percent of the time, he said.
After Riley handed over his driver’s license and registration, Stewart asked him to get out of the car and patted him down. After the frisk, Stewart said he wanted to search the car, Charns said. Riley said no. And when the officer pulled his gun, Charns said, Riley decided to save his life and take action.
After opening arguments, Stewart testified that he pulled over Riley near Northgate Mall after he saw him talking to another black man for a couple of minutes. After he pulled away, he spun his wheels and was “fishtailing down Forest Road,” which is near Forest Pointe Apartments.
Stewart said he intended to give Riley a verbal warning, but Riley started to rev up the car before the traffic stop was over. Stewart reached in to pull Riley out of the car, he said, and the car took off. Stewart jumped inside the vehicle, he said. He pulled the emergency brake.
“He is punching me. I am punching him,” he said. “We are going blow for blow, hitting each other back and forth.”
Riley pulled off his badge, and then deflected Stewart’s attempt to put on handcuffs, Stewart said.
Stewart said he pulled out his gun but didn’t have his hand on the trigger. He said he told Riley to get back or he would shoot. Then Riley put one or both hands on the gun.
Stewart’s testimony is scheduled to resume at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.