Felony misconduct charge dismissed for Osceola County detective

REED CITY — A felony misconduct charge against an Osceola County Sheriff’s detective was dismissed without prejudice on Thursday.

Det. John Keathley was arraigned last week on a charge of misconduct in office and a misdemeanor assault and battery charge. The charges stem from a May 2011 incident in which Keathley assisted in arresting John Browne, who alleged that he was assaulted by Keathley while in handcuffs.

During a preliminary examination Thursday in Osceola County’s 77th District Court, George Mertz, Keathley’s defense attorney, based much of his argument on what he described as an animosity against Keathley held by Osceola County Prosecutor James Sims.

“The facts of how the case ended up in the courtroom today are compelling,” Mertz said. “In January, the prosecutor made statements that he had watched the video (of the arrest) and that an assault had taken place and he decided not to go forward with charges. ... Why? Not because he didn’t think it was criminal, but because he thought the defendant’s work performance had improved. What difference should that make?”

Judge Susan Grant also questioned why the case was being pursued now when the conduct in question happened almost a year ago.

“What is disturbing to me is the progress of this case, and I think defense council has hit it right on the head,” Grant said. “The disturbing parts are in December and January when the state police are called in to do an investigation, they work together with the prosecuting attorney on this, and come to the consensus not to proceed. To anyone looking at this case, the code words there are, ‘There isn’t enough to go on for the case to proceed.’

Grant dismissed the felony charge without prejudice, meaning it could be brought back at a later date with sufficient probable cause. The misdemeanor assault and battery charge against Keathley remains.

Sims called three witnesses to the stand during Thursday’s exam, starting with John Browne.

During Browne’s testimony, Sims played a dash cam video of Browne’s arrest. At one point, after Browne’s father and brother appear in the frame and begin yelling, Keathley is seen pressing Browne against the hood of the patrol car while the two yell at each other.

The Pioneer requested the dash cam video of the incident under the Freedom of Information Act. The request was denied, along with requests for past complaints against Keathley.

Browne was transported to the Osceola County Jail by Osceola County Sheriff’s Deputy Jedadiah Avery, at which time he asked about filing a complaint against Keathley.

Undersheriff Justin Halladay testified that Browne originally wanted to file a complaint stating that Keathley had picked him up by the shirt and thrown him against the car. After showing Browne the video of the incident, Halladay said Brown recanted his claim. Halladay asked Browne if he intended to spit in Keathley’s face, to which Browne replied, “I could see how he would think that,” Halladay said. Browne chose not to move forward with the complaint.

Browne testified that Halladay never showed him the dash cam footage — he saw it Wednesday in Sims’ office — and that he did not move forward with the complaint because he felt Halladay was not receptive to the idea.

“He said it evened out because my dad was in the wrong and his officer was in the wrong,” Browne said.

Following the incident, Halladay said he counseled Keathley on his use of course language and about not “closing the gap” between himself and a suspect so as not provoke an assault.

Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Jerry Carter, who began investigating the case in December, said he and Sims had decided in January not to pursue the case after reviewing all the evidence.

“There was conversation that (Keathley’s) performance had improved,” Carter said. “That was also a contributing factor.”

Carter said he was contacted about a month later by Sims in regards to going forward with the case.

Mertz spoke to the press on Keathley’s behalf after the exam, saying he believes there is “zero” credibility to the remaining assault and battery charge. He hopes it will be dismissed.

“The prosecutor’s decision to charge this case wasn’t based on evidence or facts or what happened,” he said. “It’s based on a personal animosity between him and Mr. Keathley. ... I certainly think the prosecutor has more to worry about than an assault and battery charge in this case. I think he might want to start thinking about defending his own actions in this case.”

Sims said he was disappointed in the judge’s ruling. As to the defense’s claim of a personal vendetta against Keathley, Sims said there is no animosity between them as they do not work together often.

When asked by the Pioneer why he did not request a special prosecutor for the case through the Attorney General’s office, Sims said he made several attempts on his own to find someone else to try the case.

“I was told by other prosecutors, ‘This happened in your house — take care of it,’” he said. “I don’t have a legal conflict with Keathley. I think the people in Osceola County need to know their prosecuting attorney is willing to stand up and take the reins on a case like this. That’s why I took the case on.”

Sims said he has not decided whether or not to pursue the misdemeanor assault charge.