The man accused of attacking a Schenectady police officer last year and leaving him unconscious told a jury Monday he had an “out-of-body experience” the morning of the attack - like he watched himself attack the officer.
James Hilton, whose defense is arguing he’s not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, told the jury he voluntarily put his arms behind his back to be handcuffed by the officer, but the officer wrenched an arm up behind him, hurting his previously injured shoulder and setting him off.
A Veterans Administration psychologist, called by the defense Monday morning, laid out the defense, saying that Hilton, an ex-Marine, suffers from both post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder and that audio of the attack supports his conclusion that Hilton suffered a psychotic episode at the time and reacted irrationally.
Hilton described his reaction as instantaneous upon feeling the pain in his shoulder inflicted by the officer, Mark Weekes.
“I took him to the ground and I punched until he was unconscious,” Hilton told the jury under questioning by his attorney Lincy Jacob. “When I came back to [reality], I realized what I did and I felt like I had to get out of there.”
Hilton, an amateur Mixed Martial Arts fighter, fled. Police soon tracked him to a dumpster and took him into custody.
Prosecutor Christina Tremante-Pelham, in her own questioning of Hilton, attempted to cast doubt on his defense. She highlighted previous times Hilton had been handcuffed and injuries he’d suffered in MMA fighting, none of which resulted in such a response.
She also attempted to cast doubt on Hilton’s assertion that he voluntarily put his hands behind his back for the officer, pointing out comments Hilton made to a detective after his arrest that suggested otherwise.
Hilton, 33, of Glens Falls, is standing trial on one count each of assault on a police officer, second-degree assault and second-degree strangulation, all felonies.
Weekes suffered a fractured skull, broken finger and a deep bruise to his neck in the early morning Aug. 1, 2015 attack on State Street downtown. Photos admitted into evidence show his swollen face in the hospital, a bulge at his temple where his skull fractured. Weekes returned to patrols in November 2015.
Tremante-Pelham argued in opening statements last week that Hilton turned a routine police questioning over odd behavior into a vicious attack on an officer by a trained fighter.
The defense admits that Hilton attacked the officer, but is trying to convince the jury that he is not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect — essentially that Hilton’s mental health issues should allow the judge to determine Hilton’s current state and whether he should be committed to an institution for treatment.
Hilton served 10 months in Iraq with the Marines as a refrigeration mechanic more than 10 years ago, helping ensure equipment on base and elsewhere remained operational. Among his experiences, he testified seeing a fellow serviceman killed trying to take apart an explosive round on-base.
The defense backed up its mental disease defense Monday morning by offering Dr. Lawrence Avery, a psychologist who examined Hilton this past February and had examined many other veterans over the course of his career.
Avery concluded that the episode resulted from Hilton suffering from a brief psychosis caused by Hilton’s PTSD and bipolar mania and some other stimuli.
The audio of the attack, captured from the officer’s microphone, confirmed that.
“Most people in their right mind don’t go from being calm and quiet to physically assaulting someone in a matter of seconds without raising their voice,” Avery said. “The audio tape makes it sound like he went from 0 to 100 in a matter of a second.”
Hilton testified he was out that night for a friend’s birthday party. He had six drinks by the time he and friends walked down Broadway, picking up a traffic cone.
Weekes first spotted Hilton and the group at State Street, admonishing Hilton and the group from his car to return the cone, but then going on his way. The officer soon returned to the area and saw Hilton still with the cone.
Weekes testified Thursday that he then asked Hilton to stop and then approached Hilton on foot. Hilton gave his name, but refused to give an ID. Weekes went to detain Hilton, and Hilton folded his arms. The last thing Weekes remembered before picking his head up off the sidewalk was moving behind Hilton and putting his hand on Hilton’s shoulder.
Weekes then recalled four or five punches before being briefly being knocked out again.
Hilton’s recollection mirrored Weekes’ until Weekes attempted to detain and handcuff Hilton. Hilton admitted he refused to provide ID, questioning why the officer needed it. But Hilton also said he voluntarily put his arms behind his back to be cuffed, when the officer wrenched his arm like a “chicken wing.”
Hilton immediately responded in his mental state, fearing what the officer would do. Hilton pulled away, turned and took the officer down. He then punched the officer — using only his good arm — to the point the officer lost consciousness and then he fled.
Tremante-Pelham questioned if Hilton reacted out of anger, suggesting Hilton has a problem with authority.
“I didn’t get mad,” Hilton responded. “I reacted out of fear. I wasn’t angry. I was scared.”
Tremante-Pelham asked Hilton about statements he made to a city police detective after his arrest, where the detective essentially asked if he and the officer got into a fight.
Hilton responded if the officer tried to put Hilton’s arm behind his back, then yeah they got into it. Hilton also told the detective that “Nobody lays his hands on me, not even an officer of the police.” Hilton testified he wasn’t telling the detective then what happened.
The trial is expected to continue Tuesday morning.
Reach Gazette reporter Steven Cook at 395-3122, [email protected] or @ByStevenCook on Twitter.