Recording raises question of perjury by Lawrence police officer; LPD says probe cleared him
photo by: Contributed Photos
An audio recording that surfaced in court is raising questions about the validity of police reports filed by an officer of the Lawrence Police Department.
Now, at least one defense attorney is seeking to use the audio — which was captured between two police officers wearing microphones as part of their uniforms — to have one of the officer’s cases dismissed on the grounds that the officer’s word is no longer reliable.
What’s on the recording? A pair of defense attorneys say evidence of officer misconduct. But the LPD — after an internal investigation that was under wraps for 16 months — says the audio shows nothing that rises even to a department policy violation for the officer in question.
The 2018 recording is between Lawrence police officers Brad Williams and Brian Wonderly, who is no longer a member of the LPD. The pair had just had an interaction with a 22-year-old patron of The Hawk, a crowded Lawrence bar.
Williams said that he saw the man shove Wonderly as part of their interactions. Wonderly said that the bargoer got close to him but never shoved him. Wonderly said without the shove, he didn’t think the case would justify a charge of battery against a law enforcement officer. That entire conversation is caught on the audio recording.
Ultimately, though, Williams ends up writing a police report that says he saw the 22-year-old shove Wonderly. He never discloses in the report that Wonderly disputes that observation. The man gets charged with interference with a law enforcement officer, which was enough to derail his plans to enter the Marine Corps.
At a subsequent bench trial in Lawrence Municipal Court, Jameson O’Connor, of Wichita, is found not guilty after the audio is introduced into evidence and Williams is cross-examined about it. Video surveillance at the bar also showed no shoving of the officer.
Now, word of that audio recording is making its way into at least one other Douglas County case. One defense attorney is using it to seek a dismissal in a higher-profile case that resulted in a man arrested by Williams receiving a fractured elbow.
The attorney for Duc M. Tran has filed a motion to dismiss a case alleging that Tran assaulted a law enforcement officer, among other misdemeanor charges. Tran originally was detained for an alleged skateboard violation and had his elbow broken during the arrest, in what Tran’s attorney said was a show of “unreasonable and excessive force.”
Tran’s attorney is arguing that the case should be dismissed because the evidence in the 2018 case creates questions of Williams’ credibility. But the attorney also is arguing that both the Lawrence Police Department and Douglas County prosecutors were legally obligated to provide Tran’s defense team with information about the 2018 case involving O’Connor.
Mark Schoenhofer, Tran’s attorney, wrote in court documents that he properly requested any such “Giglio” information — named after a Supreme Court case — that could impeach the character or testimony of Williams. LPD and a prosecutor with the Douglas County District Attorney’s office contend that nothing in the 2018 case rose to that level. But Schoenhofer contends that it certainly does, because he believes Williams lied in the 2018 case, and that the case should be dismissed or that a jury has a right to hear the information.
In a response in court documents, Schoenhofer wrote that no jury “will understand, let alone excuse the perjury of a police officer as innocent.”
Douglas County District Court Judge Pro Tem James George is scheduled to hear a motion on Aug. 24 to dismiss the case against Tran.
Two particular parts of the 2018 recording became a focus during O’Connor’s bench trial in Lawrence Municipal Court. The first was when Wonderly told Williams that he thought it would be more appropriate for O’Connor to be charged with interference of a law enforcement officer rather than battery. In the conversation, it is noted that Wonderly ended up getting a drink spilled on him, but he says that was likely because he was pushing O’Connor, not the other way around.
“I probably kept pushing him and that’s why I got drink spilled all over me,” Wonderly said. “… Yeah he definitely, like, puffed his chest out and kind of walked at me, but yeah, I don’t think he, like, grabbed or pushed or anything.”
Kurt Kerns, O’Connor’s defense attorney, questioned Williams during the trial about why he insisted on putting in a police report that he saw O’Connor push Wonderly, even though Wonderly said no such action happened.
“That would be Officer Wonderly’s observation. I reported my observations,” Williams responded, according to the transcript from the trial.
But additional evidence would emerge to contradict that claim. This incident occurred almost two years before LPD officers were issued body cameras, and the officers never obtained the surveillance footage from the bar. Kerns, however, did get the video from the bar, which ended up proving O’Connor’s innocence.
Timeline of events
• Feb. 4, 2018: Officer Brad Williams arrests Jameson O’Connor at The Hawk
• July 19, 2018: O’Connor is acquitted of interference charge
• Nov. 25, 2018: Officer Brian Wonderly leaves LPD for a job out of state
• Feb. 12, 2019: Attorney Kurt Kerns sends letter to Chief of Police Gregory Burns Jr. about officers’ conduct
• June 29, 2019: Williams arrests and injures Duc Tran
• July 12, 2019: Prosecutor Amy McGowan files charges against Tran
• Dec. 1, 2019: LPD’s first policy specific to Brady information is implemented
• March 11, 2020: Attorney Mark Schoenhofer files motion to dismiss Tran’s case
• May 18, 2020: City announces Burns’ pending resignation
• June 8, 2020: Interim Chief of Police Anthony Brixius responds to Kerns’ letter
• Coming up Aug. 24, 2020: Judge will hear motion to dismiss Tran’s case
O’Connor said that because of the video’s poor, choppy quality, Kerns used still frames from it as evidence at the trial. But O’Connor said the images, which he provided to the Journal-World, show that he turned his body to the side to allow Wonderly to pass, then began to follow him toward the exit.
In addition, O’Connor said, the images show that Williams was looking the other direction and having a conversation with a young woman at the time; he was not looking in the direction of O’Connor and Wonderly until after Wonderly had passed by O’Connor.
A second recording also was highlighted in the trial. That recording involved Wonderly talking with a third police officer. In that recording, Wonderly said he didn’t think O’Connor committed an act that would result in him getting charged with a crime. He also questioned whether Williams even would recommend that O’Connor be charged with a crime. But then Wonderly used an expletive to label O’Connor.
“So the thought process of the arresting officers here, is well, I didn’t think Jameson was going to get charged with a crime, but he’s a (expletive), he deserves it, right?” Kerns asked Wonderly during the trial.
“That’s what I said, yes,” Wonderly confirmed.
Lawrence Municipal Court Judge Scott Miller ultimately found O’Connor not guilty of the charges. In subsequent correspondence with the Lawrence Police Department, Kerns said Miller, in his ruling, took exception to the police officers’ conduct in the case.
“Most disturbing to the Court – in acquitting Mr. O’Connor of all charges, was the clear discrepancy between what the officers wrote in their reports – compared to what they discussed among themselves on their own surveillance cameras,” Kerns wrote.
The Journal-World, though, wasn’t able to verify what Miller said about the officers’ actions in the case. His ruling from the bench was not transcribed, and recently, Miller told the Journal-World that he doesn’t have a good enough recollection of the trial to make any statement regarding his ruling in the case.
Kerns was disturbed enough by the officers’ actions that he sent a letter to then-Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. The Feb. 12, 2019, letter was accompanied by a transcript of the officers’ bench trial testimony, “in the interests of avoiding future incidents like this,” the letter stated.
But 16 months elapsed before Kerns ever received a response to his letter. By that time, Burns had already left the department as part of a negotiated resignation with the city. Interim Police Chief Anthony Brixius responded to Kerns a little less than a month after assuming command of LPD.
It is not clear how long the investigation into Williams’ actions lasted, and whether it was completed under Burns’ tenure and simply not communicated to Kerns. Brixius did not address that point in his response, but said he regretted the amount of time it had taken for Kerns to receive a response.
Brixius, though, made it clear that Williams was not found to have committed any violations.
“An investigation was conducted and found that Officer Williams did not violate department policy or state statute,” Brixius wrote to Kerns on June 8.
However, Kerns noted that neither O’Connor nor any other defense witness was ever interviewed by police regarding the actions of the two police officers that night, and the thoroughness of the investigation done by the police department was unclear.
An LPD spokesperson declined to provide the Journal-World with any details about what the investigation entailed. For instance, it is unclear whether Wonderly also was investigated as part of the inquiry. Capt. Trent McKinley, a spokesman for the department, said Wonderly left in November 2018 — before Kerns sent the letter — to pursue a job opportunity in another state.
McKinley said LPD is prohibited from discussing the investigation into Williams’ actions in detail.
“However, as a general matter all allegations of misconduct made against a Lawrence Police Officer are taken seriously and are investigated to their fullest extent,” McKinley said via written statement.
What is clear is that the incident was not investigated by the city’s Community Police Review Board. As the Journal-World has reported, that board was created by the Lawrence City Commission almost two years ago, but it has not reviewed a single complaint against the police department because of limitations on its review powers.
The board met again last week to discuss changes it would like the City Commission to make in order to give the board more authority to review a wider range of complaints against the police department.
In the meantime, it will be up to Douglas County Judge Pro Tem James George to sort through whether Williams’ actions in the 2018 case should have a bearing on the charges against Tran.
photo by: Sara Shepherd/Journal-World File Photo
As the Journal-World has reported, Williams arrested Tran, now 44, on June 29, 2019, in the 700 block of New Hampshire Street. Tran told the Journal-World that he had been skateboarding in the street when Williams stopped him.
Tran, speaking with the Journal-World last year, said he did protest being detained, asked why he was being stopped and told the officer he’d been let off the hook for skateboarding in the street before. However, Williams alleged that Tran lifted his skateboard up above his head and threatened Williams with it. Tran denied doing that; he said he put the skateboard down in the grass as soon as he was asked to.
Tran said that as he was face down on the pavement, Williams twisted his left arm from behind his back all the way up over his head and seemed to twist it more the more he pleaded for him not to. Tran ended up with a fractured left elbow, dislocated shoulders and scrapes and bruises, he said.
According to the probable cause affidavit Williams wrote supporting Tran’s arrest, Williams had Tran on the ground by the time other officers arrived. At the time of Tran’s arrest, Lawrence police officers still were not yet equipped with body-worn cameras; those were issued departmentwide this January. However, Tran’s attorney, Schoenhofer, wrote in court documents that a dashcam recording captured audio of the encounter from Williams’ body microphone.
That recording “reveals that Tran was attempting to comply with Williams’ orders during the arrest, but the full weight (of) Williams’ body was on Tran, and Tran could not release one of his arms,” Schoenhofer wrote. “Tran was calm during the arrest procedure, and warned Williams that he was breaking his arm while tugging at it.”
Tran was booked into the Douglas County Jail, then released about 36 hours later without being charged. He posted about the arrest on social media, including photos of his injuries, and the Journal-World published an article about the incident on July 3, 2019. About a week later, Amy McGowan, former chief assistant district attorney, filed three misdemeanors against Tran: interference with law enforcement, assault of a law enforcement officer and failure to obey lawful order of a police officer.
Part of the court’s decision on whether to dismiss the case will depend on whether it believes the police department and prosecutors were required to disclose the information about Williams and the 2018 case involving O’Connor.
Assistant District Attorney LeTiffany Obozele has responded to the court that there was no reason to disclose any information from the case because Williams had not been found to have committed any violations.
“There is nothing in either the exhibit (Kerns’ February 2019 letter to Burns) or the record suggesting that the alleged misconduct actually occurred or that Officer Brad Williams behaved similarly in this case,” she wrote.
Williams began as a deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in 2011 after graduating from the Kansas Law Enforcement Training Center’s basic academy. He went to work for the Lawrence Police Department in May 2017, according to city salary data.
Shortly after Tran’s arrest, a spokesperson for LPD said that Williams’ status had not changed and he was still on duty. The Journal-World has requested updates on his status periodically over the past year, and Williams has not been placed on administrative leave. The newspaper asked through department spokespeople to speak with Williams but did not receive a response.
As for O’Connor, he was not only found not guilty in his 2018 case, he also had the case expunged from his record. He agreed to talk to the Journal-World about it, however.
“Even after my personal experience and seeing pervasive, abject brutality from many law enforcement officers across the country, I’m still reluctant to appear to attack law enforcement officers because I know so many good ones,” O’Connor said. “… But enough is enough. Nobody is above the law.”
The arrest did derail his plans to become an officer in the Marines, but it did not prevent him from getting into the University of Kansas School of Law, where he’s now in his second year.
“I’m lucky that whole episode only temporarily knocked my life off-course in the way that it did,” O’Connor, now 24, said via email.
Contact Mackenzie Clark
Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact public safety reporter Mackenzie Clark: