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    Monday, May 20, 2024

    Trial for state trooper charged in teen’s death begins

    This Jan. 15, 2020, image taken from dashboard camera video released by the Connecticut State Police, shows Trooper Brian North, left, after he fired his weapon beside a vehicle stopped in West Haven, Conn. North has pleaded not guilty to first-degree manslaughter with a firearm in the death of Mubarak Soulemane in West Haven. (Connecticut State Police via AP, File)

    The trial against Connecticut State Police trooper Brian North, who shot and killed Mubarak Soulemane in 2020 following a chaotic police pursuit, commenced Monday at Milford Superior Court with the state laying out the 19-year-old deteriorating mental health in the days leading up to his death and the events that transpired that ultimately led to the officer-involved shooting.

    North, 33, faces one count of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm for firing seven shots at the teen on Jan. 15, 2020, following pursuits from two police agencies that were preceded by a bizarre incident at an AT&T store in Norwalk where Soulemane reportedly displayed a knife before stealing a Hyundai Sonata from a Lyft driver.

    North was charged after an investigation into the shooting was taken over by Connecticut Inspector General Robert Devlin Jr., who concluded the Connecticut State Police trooper was not justified in his use of deadly force. Devlin’s conclusion went against two experts consulted by the prosecutor who previously investigated the shooting.

    During the first day of the trial Monday at the Ansonia-Milford Judicial District Courthouse, Soulemane’s sister, Mariyann Soulemane, testified that she spoke to her brother the week he was killed and was concerned that his erratic behavior was manifesting into one of his frequent episodes brought about by his diagnosed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  The sister was not in the country when her brother was killed, as she was in Malaysia for a fellowship.

    She testified that her brother had been in and out of the emergency room in the years preceding his death and needed constant adjustments to his medications. Mariyann Soulemane told the courtroom her brother would spend anywhere from three nights to a week in the hospital each time he suffered an episode and that it was “pretty common” for him to have difficulties taking his prescribed medications regularly.

    During such episodes, Mubarak Soulemane would often show confusion and had difficulties understanding his surroundings, his sister testified.

    “I wouldn’t say extremely concerned,” she said when asked how alarmed she was upon speaking to Mubarak Soulemane the week he was killed, later clarifying that she was “nervous” about her brother’s state of mind.

    Mariyanna Soulemane said she spoke to her other brother, Saeed, about Mubarak’s mental condition leading up to the fatal shooting. Mubarak Soulemane was living with his brother and mother in New Haven at the time.

    Mubarak Soulemane’s mother, Omu Mohammed, also took the stand Monday and said her son had his first episode during his sophomore year of high school when he was 15 years old. He went to the hospital and was prescribed medication at the time, she said.

    Mohammed said her son played basketball and lacrosse in high school and that he remained on medication upon graduating. She was also not in the country when he was shot and killed, testifying that she was in Ghana at the time and learned of the death during a phone call with Saeed.

    During cross-examination with North’s attorney, Frank Riccio, Mohammed testified that her son “frequently” did not take his prescribed medications.

    Mubarak Soulemane’s girlfriend, Julia Johnson, also took the stand Monday and said he had told her he suffered a mental health disorder, but she did not know the specifics because she “never pried into it.” She said the two met in the spring of 2019 at a vape shop in New Haven where she worked at the time and began dating in August of that year.

    Johnson — who now works as a special education teacher — said the day before the shooting was the first time Mubarak Soulemane had shown noticeable signs of mental health problems around her. She said he was acting paranoid and believed someone was stalking her, which she said she chalked up at the time to him being “overprotective.”

    Mubarak Soulemane came to the vape shop where Johnson worked on Jan. 14, 2020, and seemed out of it, like “he wasn’t himself,” Johnson testified. He also bit her tongue when the two kissed and upon moving him away from her, he appeared confused and unaware that he had done anything wrong, according to Johnson.

    Johnson testified that she encouraged Mubarak Soulemane to go to a hospital and offered to bring him. She also encouraged him to call his family, as she was unable to do so herself because she did not have phone numbers for any of them, she testified.

    Johnson testified that Mubarak Soulemane admitted he was “in a psychosis” and that he didn’t sleep at all the night before the shooting. She said the two spent time in her apartment before he visited her again the next day at the vape shop when he “appeared a little bit worse.”

    “What he was saying didn’t make a ton of sense,” Johnson testified.

    She said Mubarak Soulemane intended to take the train to Norwalk where he would play basketball and get his haircut. He sent her a text message at 3:42 p.m. on the day of the shooting asking if she was still working and, after responding to his text about half an hour later, she never heard from him again.

    Johnson said she later learned that Mubarak Soulemane had taken a knife from the knife block in the kitchen of her apartment. She testified that he had never carried a weapon while the two were dating and that, before the incident in which he bit her tongue, had never previously been physically aggressive.

    “He was a very loving person,” Johnson testified.

    The trial marks the first time since Devlin’s appointment as Inspector General in 2021 — when he was tasked with investigating all officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths — that he concluded a police officer was not justified in their use of deadly force and pursued prosecution.

    On Monday, Devlin walked the jury through the events that ultimately led to the shooting, which began with an argument between Mubarak Soulemane and his brother that brought him to an AT&T store in Norwalk at 4:15 p.m.

    Giovanna Padilla, who worked at the store, testified that Mubarak Soulemane wanted to get a new phone and that, during their interactions, his mood “kept changing.”

    “He was happy then he was mad,” she said.

    When Padilla told Mubarak Soulemane she needed to conduct a credit check on him before selling him a phone he snatched a tablet out of her hands and refused to give his Social Security number, she testified. Padilla said she took the tablet back and ran the check, finding that his credit wasn’t very good and that he would need to deposit more than $400 if he wished to buy a new phone.

    Padilla said Mubarak Soulemane told her he had no money before leaving the store and later returning when he accused her of “messing up” his phone. Padilla said she and another store associate saw him with what she described as a “long kitchen knife.”

    Padilla told Riccio during cross-examination that the incident was one of the scariest of her life. Upon leaving the store again, Mubarak Soulemane returned for a third time and tried stealing a phone from Padilla’s supervisor, she testified.

    He left the store once again and left the area in a white vehicle after requesting a ride from the Lyft driving service.

    The jury was shown a video from a nearby Shell gas station where the Lyft driver, identified as Daniel Green, parked after Mubarak Soulemane reportedly hit him in the head from the rear of the vehicle. The video was shown as the gas station owner, Suresh Patel, testified about what his 16 surveillance cameras captured.

    As the jury watched the video, Devlin had Patel walk the jury through the events that transpired, which included Green exiting the vehicle shortly before Mubarak Soulemane got out of the rear of the Hyundai. Mubarak Soulemane then got into the driver seat, at which point Green could be seen pointing “something” toward the driver area of the car, which later police learned was a gun.

    A Norwalk police officer who arrived at the scene tried to open the vehicle door before it took off on Main Street and was pursued by other officers.

    Norwalk police Sgt. Justin Bisceglie testified that the pursuit led officers onto Route 7 and reached speeds between 70 and 90 mph. Bisceglie said “three or four units” were involved before he called off the pursuit once the Hyundai reached the area of Interstate 95, testifying that the incident took place during rush hour and that police at the time were investigating it as a car theft which did not involve any violence and not a carjacking.

    When asked during Riccio’s cross-examination if Bisceglie knew state police were contacted shortly after the pursuit was canceled and told that a carjacking had taken place in Norwalk, Bisceglie said he was “not sure” if the term carjacking was used. Riccio then played two transmissions to state police, the first of which indicated Norwalk police were investigating a carjacking. The second transmission added that the suspect involved in the carjacking was armed with a knife.

    It wasn’t until about half an hour later that state police were informed by Norwalk investigators that the incident was not being investigated as a carjacking and instead appeared to be a car theft, Riccio said.

    “I don’t even know who coined it a carjacking,” Bisceglie testified.

    During the afternoon hours Monday, retired Norwalk police Lt. Bruce Hume took the stand and was played a phone call he made the day of the shooting informing state police that, after some “back-and-forth,” it was determined that the incident did not meet the criteria of a carjacking.

    Hume testified that he was serving as shift commander that day for the Norwalk Police Department and that it was his decision to call off the pursuit. Hume testified that he could only guess that it was incorrect information given to state police that indicated a carjacking had taken place.

    “That information was put out and I don’t know why,” Hume testified during cross-examination.

    According to Devlin’s report filed in connection with the shooting, Mubarak Soulemane reached speeds of 100 mph on I-95 and struck multiple vehicles, including two state police cruisers, as troopers conducted a pursuit of their own. He left I-95 at Exit 43 in West Haven at 5:04 p.m. and crashed into a motorist on Campbell Avenue.

    Three state troopers, including North, were able to box in the Hyundai, the report said. North drew his weapon outside the driver-side window as another trooper ordered Mubarak Soulemane out of the vehicle, according to the report.

    A West Haven police officer who had arrived smashed out the passenger window before a trooper deployed his taser, which did not penetrate Mubarak Soulemane’s coat. At that point, a West Haven officer shouted “he’s reaching,” Devlin’s report indicated. North then fired his gun seven times as Mubarak Soulemane moved his arm up while holding the knife,” according to Devlin.

    Mubarak Soulemane was taken to Yale New Haven Hospital and pronounced dead just after 6 p.m.

    According to Devlin’s report, North told investigators he fired the shot believing one of the officers on the passenger side of the car was preparing to enter the vehicle through the broken window.

    Devlin concluded that North’s justification for the shooting is unsupported by events.

    Even if North believed one of the officers on the passenger side was preparing to enter the Hyundai, “that belief was not reasonable,” Devlin wrote in his report. He said North should have known that no reasonable officer would try to crawl through a window into a car containing a suspect armed with a knife.

    The trial — which is expected to last about a week and a half — is scheduled to resume at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, with Green and multiple law enforcement officers taking the stand.

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