CINCINNATI – Stew Mathews put his cards on the table and showed his hand. It doesn't have four aces, but it might be more playable than we thought.
It wasn't hard to imagine how Ray Tensing's attorney might try to defend the former University of Cincinnati police officer, caught on his own body camera video shooting and killing an unarmed black motorist. And Mathews confirmed it during opening statements Tuesday:
- Blame Sam DuBose for trying to drive away from the traffic stop and not cooperating with a non-combative officer who was just trying to do his job.
- Blame the University of Cincinnati and its police department for pushing Tensing and other UC cops to make more stops, write more tickets and drive the bad guys away from campus -- even if that meant stopping an inordinate amount of minority drivers.
- Spin the video, knowing most everyone has seen it and already has convicted Tensing in their minds, and tell the jury and us we'll see things we haven't seen when he shows it frame by frame in court. According to Mathews, we'll see DuBose pinning Tensing's forearm against the door, "mashing" the accelerator, twisting Tensing's body into a free fall, and leaving Tensing with no choice to save himself but to shoot DuBose in the head.
According to Mathews, it was DuBose, not Tensing, who was trying to kill the other.
In the instant he turned on the ignition, Mathews said, DuBose "went from what I would call passive non-compliance by a slow stop to active resistance when he put his arm over Tensing's arm to assaulting the officer when he mashed that accelerator and turned that car to the left and took off."
Mathews has a tougher job winning his case than Prosecutor Joe Deters does. In Deters' opening statement, he let the video do the talking, promising it would also reveal new truths about what happened on Rice Street in Mount Auburn that early summer Sunday evening.
According to Deters, the video will show Tensing had already pulled his gun and had it "moving toward the head of Sam DuBose" before DuBose's car "moved an inch."
"You will see that when the car slowly starts to move, the gun is already pointed at the head of Sam DuBose," Deters said.
Deters has already said a lot about this case.
When he released the video 10 days after the shooting, he called it a clear-cut "murder." He said stopping a driver for not having a front-license plate was a "chicken-crap" traffic stop. He said Tensing wasn't dragged but fell backward after he shot DuBose. And he said Tensing "should never have been a police officer."
Deters reiterated most of that Tuesday, and he has a strong case to go with his words. There's Tensing getting beaten up in a fight and taking it upon himself to investigate through social media, as well as video of Tensing stopping two young black men near UC and becoming unglued when one of them smartly refused Tensing's order to give him personal information. There's also a defense attorney's opinion that Tensing never should have become a cop because he was "a ticking time bomb."
Mathews admitted, as he has in the past, that Tensing fired the shot that killed DuBose, but said it was self-defense. He only fired to "stop the threat."
More interesting, though, was that Mathews' opening statement gave us the first real look at his defense.
Mathews said -- and the facts back him up -- that UC was facing a safety crisis. Students living in off-campus housing were being robbed while walking on the streets, sometimes attacked. The university tried to fight it with conventional weapons -- surveillance cameras and more street lighting -- but that failed. UC hired off-duty Cincinnati police to patrol streets around the campus. But that didn't work either, he said.
So UC entered into a mutual-aid agreement with Cincinnati police that allowed UC cops to patrol city streets, with the idea that they would stay near campus. UC president Santa Ono and then Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell tried a political solution: twisting arms. They sent a letter to Hamilton County judges asking them to levy stricter punishment against criminals preying on students near UC's campus.
And UC "greatly increased the size of its police department," Mathews said. The university created beats for officers and decided "to flood the area."
"Jason Goodrich (then UC police chief) adopted a policy of a no-fly zone," Mathews said.
The idea was to make more traffic stops, write more tickets, find more reasons to charge more violators and "drive the criminals around UC out," Mathews said.
Mathews said some high-ranking UC officers resisted Goodrich's policy, but when they did, the chief would just encourage the officers to "go out and get more." Barely two weeks after the shooting, UC put a new leader in charge of police and safety. Goodrich was ousted six months later, and a top-to-bottom review completed in 2016 called for major changes in the department.
Mathews said he will show a taped deposition from Ono to back him up.
Tensing, according to Mathews, was "one of the low officers on the totem pole," and he did what he was told.
Mathews said he will show video from three other Tensing-involved traffic stops on July 19, 2015, leading up to the fateful one with DuBose, and jurors will see another side of Tensing.
- First stop: McMillan Avenue. No front license plate. In the car: a male driver, wife in the passenger seat, four kids in the back, none in car seats. Tensing ran a check, found the man was driving under suspension and wrote him a ticket rather than arrest him. The woman was under suspension, too, so Tensing let them call someone to drive the car home instead of towing the car.
- Second stop: Backing up another officer's stop on McMillan. This might not have been so favorable because Mathews didn't offer any other details.
- Third stop: Bellevue Park on Ohio Avenue. Another no front plate. Rather, the plate was on the dashboard, not the bumper. A black woman was driving, a black man was in the passenger seat. She said the car belonged to a friend. Tensing asked for their IDs and they complied. He ran a check, found no warrants. According to Mathews, he instructed them that the plate belongs on the bumper and sent them on their way. "He said, 'Have a nice day.' The lady said, 'Have a nice day,'" Mathews said. It was 5:58 p.m.
At 6:31 p.m., Tensing was on East Hollister Street when DuBose drove past in a Honda Accord south on Vine.
According to Mathews, Tensing said he only saw a driver wearing a red hat and a red shirt. "He couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman," the attorney said.
Tensing ran a check from the back plate. It said the car was registered to DaShonda Reid and Reid's license was under suspension. Reid was DuBose's girlfriend.
Mathews went into more details about the stop, but we'll skip those. Presuming you saw the video if you're reading this, you've already seen what happened next.
(Warning: The raw body cam video below contains graphic images)
Mathews said a frame-by-frame viewing will reveal what we don't know about the shooting.
He said two officers just arriving at the scene will testify that they heard "tires squealing, then a shot."
He said when DuBose pulled over to the curb, he parked behind another car facing straight ahead.
He said when DuBose hit the gas, he had to turn the wheel or he would have hit the car in front of him.
He said that's when Tensing was knocked backward and feared he would be run over.
Was the threat real? Was Tensing's response necessary? Justifiable? That's what the jurors have to decide.
"I will concede Sam DuBose did not have a gun," Mathews said, " ... but I will not concede that he did not have a weapon. He had a 3,000-pound car that he turned into a weapon."
There. That might or might not give us a preview of the trial. There might be some surprises in store. Mathews might need some aces up his sleeve to avoid a murder conviction.
Outside the courtroom, Sam DuBose's mother, Andrea DuBose, was clearly hoping for that murder conviction.
"I feel good but nervous," she said.
The people at the Black Lives Matter rally Tuesday afternoon will settle for nothing less than that.
Let the testimony begin.
For all our Tensing trial coverage, go to wcpo.com/TensingTrial