‘They Had Enough For A Stop’: Former MPD Sergeant Testifies In Defense Of Officer Charged With Second Degree Murder

By Jenny Gathright

Sometimes, according to retired police sergeant John Brennan, being a good police officer means you might have to break the rules a little.

“I don’t know an officer that could go a week on the street and follow MPD’s General Orders entirely,” Brennan told a jury last week, referring to the list of policies that govern behavior at the Metropolitan Police Department.

Brennan was testifying for the defense in the case against Terence Sutton, a D.C. police officer charged with second-degree murder, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice in connection with the death of 20-year-old Karon Hylton-Brown. Hylton-Brown died in a moped crash in 2020; he collided with an oncoming vehicle while Sutton chased him in his unmarked police car. Sutton’s supervisor, Lieutenant Andrew Zabavsky, has been charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice for allegedly helping Sutton cover up the circumstances of the crash.

Brennan’s testimony cut to the heart of Sutton’s defense in the trial. Through their witnesses and lines of questioning, prosecutors have argued that Sutton was reckless and in clear violation of MPD’s pursuit policy – which prohibits officers from initiating police chases except in extreme circumstances. The government contends police had no reason to pursue Hylton-Brown, whom they said was using the moped to look for his lost keys; video footage shows him and a friend using a phone flashlight to peer through the grass, seemingly in search of something.

On the other hand, the defense has argued that Sutton and his team had a duty to investigate crime around Kennedy Street, which justified the pursuit of Hylton-Brown. MPD Officer Kathryn Pitt has testified that she told Sutton, Zabavsky, and other officers on their team that she’d seen Hylton-Brown get into an altercation in the area earlier that day, making officers suspicious that he’d returned to the neighborhood to retaliate.

Sutton’s expert witness, Brennan, offered the most forceful articulation of this argument in the case. His testimony illustrates some key tensions the trial is raising about policing in the District: Prosecutors argue Sutton and Zabavsky were in flagrant violation of standard MPD policies — policies in place to keep residents safe, protect their rights, and ensure transparency. But the defense is arguing that these officers were just doing their jobs to keep the public safe in a neighborhood that struggles with crime. Overall, the case raises larger questions about the tactics used by the city’s most proactive policing units — and how far officers should be allowed to go in the name of trying to be tough on crime.

Attorneys for the two D.C. police officers – Officer Terence Sutton and Lieutenant Andrew Zabavsky — closed their case in federal court on Friday, with both defendants invoking their right to remain silent and choosing not to testify in their own defense. Both the prosecution and the defense are expected to give closing statements on Tuesday, after which the jury will get its final instructions and begin deliberations.

Below is a summary of other highlights from the defense’s case.

Brennan’s Testimony 

Brennan became a police officer in D.C. in the ‘70s because the job offered good money – $8,000 a year at the time, he told the jury. He remained at the department for four decades, eventually supervising teams that tried to stop the transport and sale of drugs in the city during the devastating crack epidemic of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He continued to serve as a supervisor in the narcotics and special investigations division as a detective sergeant until his retirement in 2015. And from 2016 to 2019, he came out of retirement to supervise a federal task force of detectives investigating drugs and gun violence in the D.C. region.

Throughout his career, Brennan was focused on proactive policing — working on and supervising units that were the predecessors to what MPD now calls “crime suppression teams,” the small units that focus on finding drugs and guns and stopping crime in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Sutton and Zabavsky are both part of that legacy; They were members of the Fourth District’s crime suppression team on the night Hylton-Brown died. Brennan described the team as the “best of the best” police officers. And Brennan said that from everything he’s read in the case, he thinks Sutton did nothing wrong.

“They were concerned he was going to come back to the neighborhood and do something,” Brennan testified. “What they built up was reasonable suspicion.”

The chase, according to video evidence presented by prosecutors, lasted approximately three minutes through the streets and alleyways of Brightwood Park. At times, Sutton broke traffic rules as he followed Hylton-Brown — but that was something he was entitled to do as a police officer, Brennan said.

“If they felt they were safe,” and if their lieutenant, Zabavsky, felt they were safe, “then it was fine.” Asked whose safety he was referring to, Brennan told Judge Paul Friedman he meant the safety of the officers, not Hylton-Brown, whom he called “reckless.”

“He wasn’t stopping for the police,” Brennan said. “He was reckless driving. That was a danger to the public.”

On cross-examination, prosecutor Risa Berkower pressed Brennan on the policies regarding reasonable suspicion. She pointed out the MPD policy on stops, which says officers must be able to actually articulate the specific factors behind that suspicion before stopping someone. And Berkower pointed out that another officer in Sutton’s car that night who testified, Cory Novick, said he didn’t think they had reasonable suspicion to stop Hylton-Brown that night — only a “hunch.” Other officers present that night previously testified that they weren’t exactly clear on why they were pursuing Hylton-Brown, or that they thought they were pulling him over for the traffic violation of riding a moped without a helmet.

Ultimately, Brennan said, he felt so sorry that Hylton-Brown had died, but it wasn’t Sutton’s fault.

“I personally thought they had enough for a stop,” he said. “[Hylton-Brown] didn’t stop. He ran … until unfortunately something bad happened to him.”

Other witnesses for the defense 

  • Police witnesses 

In addition to Brennan, the defense also called some of the police officers who were in the car or at the scene that night. Several of those officers had previously testified in the government’s case.

One of the officers who rode in the backseat, Cory Novick, testified for the defense that he didn’t think they were officially involved in a vehicle pursuit of Hylton-Brown because they were traveling too slowly for it to qualify. If he had considered it a pursuit, he testified, he “probably would have operated a bit differently that night.”

  • Driver of the car that hit Hylton-Brown

The defense also called the driver of the vehicle that struck Hylton-Brown on Kennedy Street. The driver, Jonathan Bladimir Urrutia Chavez, had his 52-year-old mother and 3-year-old niece in the car at the time. During his examination by the defense, Chavez described how Hylton-Brown came seemingly out of nowhere.

“All of a sudden, I heard the crash,” Chavez said.

When examined by prosecutors, Chavez offered additional details about the moments before the crash. He said that he didn’t hear any sirens or see any lights coming from a police car before he hit Hylton-Brown (Sutton had his lights and sirens on intermittently during the pursuit, but they were off in the final alleyway before the collision).

  • Character witnesses for the officers

Another piece of the defense has to do with proving the officers’ good character. In part for this purpose, Sutton called Wilfredo Manlapaz, an assistant chief at MPD in charge of the Internal Affairs Division. Manlapaz previously supervised the Fourth District – Sutton and Zabavsky’s assigned district — as commander. He testified that when then-MPD chief Cathy Lanier created specialized “crime suppression teams” in each District, Sutton was one of the first officers recommended for the Fourth District’s team.

Manlapaz testified that the 4D crime suppression team, of which Sutton was a member, contributed to significant reductions in crime. Before the CST launched, Manlapaz said, the Fourth District had the highest rate of robberies in the entire city. Within about nine months of the new CST starting its work, the Fourth District dropped to having some of the lowest robbery numbers in the city. He described Sutton as a high-performing officer, one of 4D’s best.

On cross-examination, prosecutors asked Manlapaz about disciplinary findings against Sutton — including one involving a previous pursuit, where he was reprimanded for failing to notify dispatchers of the pursuit over his radio. But Manlapaz testified that the disciplinary findings against Sutton didn’t change his opinion of him.

John Paul Gautreaux, another character witness for Sutton who worked with him for two years on the crime suppression team, testified that Sutton had a good reputation both among other officers, and even with some of the people the team policed closely.

“In the department, and even to a small degree some of the people, nefarious actors in the community, he’s synonymous with being someone who is fair, who is honest, who is trustworthy, and I mean just an all-around good person, good officer, good cop,” said Geautreaux.

How Sutton and Zabavsky are responding to the conspiracy and obstruction charges

During the government’s case, MPD detectives who investigate major crashes and officer misconduct said they were not given all the information about the crash right away, including the full details of how police were involved. Additionally, a detective with MPD’s major crash unit testified that their detectives should be notified as soon as possible about a vehicle crash that involves life-threatening injuries or the possibility that someone could die – in this case, it took hours before someone called major crash to tell them about the incident.

The detectives also testified that Sutton’s initial police report was false and misleading. And they said the officers at the scene, including Sutton and Zabavsky, failed to adequately preserve the evidence at the scene, which affected their ability to properly investigate the incident.

But through their witnesses, it appears the defense is arguing that there was nothing particularly extraordinary or untoward about the way Sutton and Zabavsky behaved in the aftermath of the crash.

For example, detective Victor DePeralta with MPD’s major crash unit testified that there are plenty of times when his team is notified late about an incident.

Michael Miller, a former major crash detective for MPD, also testified that he thought the way the officers at the scene of the crash began the investigation –by getting information from the striking driver and taking photos of the scene –was proper.

“With respect to a patrol officer level of investigation, everything was being taken care of,” Miller said.

Defense attorneys for Sutton and Zabavsky are also trying to inject doubt into the prosecution’s argument that Hylton-Brown’s injuries were obviously severe at the scene. When presenting their case, the prosecutors showed body camera footage from police officers at the scene that showed Hylton-Brown in critical condition: unconscious, vomiting, and bleeding from his head. But Miller testified that he believed the officers on the scene would have immediately notified major crash if they were truly aware of how severe Hylton-Brown’s injuries were. Instead, he said, the notification to major crash came after police went to the hospital and confirmed with Hylton-Brown’s doctors that he was likely going to die.

Ultimately, defense attorneys seemed to emphasize that the crash was eventually investigated by the department’s major crash unit and Internal Affairs Division — and nothing their clients may have done prevented that.

What’s next

After both the government and defense deliver their closing arguments on Tuesday, the jury will receive instructions and then start deliberating. It’s unclear how long those deliberations will take; the trial has gone on significantly longer than all sides expected, in part because of the large volume of video evidence and in part because of vigorous disagreements between lawyers for both sides. The jury was told at the beginning of the trial to prepare for approximately a month. Now, it’s lasted seven weeks.

Read more: DCIST