A former Fall River police officer was sentenced on Thursday to at least eighteen months in prison after a jury convicted him of beating a man and filing false reports to justify his arrest.
During a six-day trial that ended May 31, police witnesses testified that former patrolman Michael Pessoa, an 18-year veteran of the Fall River Police Department, struck a civilian named David Lafrance in the face. The incident occurred while they were in the process of releasing him without charges following a heated argument between Lafrance and his neighbors. Lafrance testified that police then re-handcuffed him and dragged him into a cruiser, where Pessoa punched him in the face again. Lafrance said his encounter with police turned violent after he returned an insult Pessoa made about his weight.
Lafrance’s account of the arrest, which took place in February 2019, conflicted with the officers’ reports from that evening and the testimony provided at trial by Pessoa, who said Lafrance threatened to punch him in the face as he was being uncuffed.
A jury ultimately sided with Lafrance’s version of events after reviewing a soundless video of the encounter, which was captured by a surveillance camera overlooking the parking lot of Lafrance’s apartment building.
At a sentencing hearing in Fall River Superior Court on Thursday, Pessoa’s attorneys stopped short of admitting their client was guilty of using excessive force, instead offering more neutral statements accepting the consequences of the jury’s decision. They submitted letters to the judge from friends, relatives and police colleagues describing Pessoa as a kind person with a passion for dogs.
Justice Renee Dupuis said she also reviewed commendations about Pessoa that the police department kept on file, which describe more uplifting moments from Pessoa’s career as a police officer.
“It's difficult, if not impossible, to square the Michael Pessoa on the videotape assaulting and beating a defenseless David Lafrance with the Michael Pessoa who rushed into a burning building to save an elderly woman,” Dupuis said.
The judge ordered Pessoa to serve between one and a half and three years in state prison followed by a year of probation, a sentence that fell in the middle ground between what Pessoa’s legal team and prosecutors from Bristol County had requested.
The Bristol County District Attorney’s Office recommended that Pessoa serve a state prison sentence of between four and five years. Pessoa had asked to be sentenced to a year of house arrest, explaining how the three weeks he spent in county jail awaiting sentencing had already changed his views on incarceration.
“During this time, I've gained a new perspective on what it means and feels like to be incarcerated,” Pessoa said, choking up with tears. “I truly believe if this different perspective existed sooner, I would have been a different person with many different views. It truly has been an eye-opening and humbling experience.”
“I understand and respect that I must deal with the decision of this court,” Pessoa continued. “I love my fiance, I love my dogs, I love my friends, I love my family very much, and I just hope I can be with them again soon.”
The lead prosecutor in the case for Bristol County, William McCauley, called Pessoa’s pleas for leniency “ironic,” pointing out that Pessoa was convicted of exhibiting cruelty towards a man in his custody and imprisoning him on false charges.
“You wouldn’t treat a dog that way,” McCauley said, “and he’s a human being.”
Pessoa’s legal team has already notified the judge that they plan to appeal the convictions handed down by the jury, which include assault and battery, civil rights violations, intimidation of a witness, and a false report by a public official.
As his appeal of the case begins, Pessoa will also be fighting two other criminal cases where Bristol County prosecutors claim Pessoa filed false reports to cover up separate instances of police brutality in Fall River.
The Public’s Radio in Rhode Island and WBUR have a partnership in which the news organizations collaborate and share stories. This story was originally published by The Public's Radio.