As the Atlanta Hawks open training camp for the 2015–16 NBA season, arguably their best defensive player, Thabo Sefolosha, sits in a New York City courthouse as a defendant in a criminal trial. The 31-year-old shooting guard faces misdemeanor charges for resisting arrest and obstructing the administration of government. The charges stem from Sefolosha’s early-morning altercation with New York City police officers outside the Manhattan nightclub “1 OAK” on Apr. 8. Six jurors have been empaneled to hear radically different portrayals about what took place.
According to the New York County District Attorney’s Office and the NYPD, Sefolosha intentionally interfered with a police investigation into the stabbing of Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland, who, along with a companion, had been attacked outside the nightclub (the alleged assailant, Shevoy Bleary Murdock, was later charged with felony assault). At the time, Sefolosha was standing with teammate Pero Antic near where the stabbing occurred. Prosecutors insist that Sefolosha refused multiple requests by officer JohnPaul Giacona to move so the officers could locate evidence and conduct witness interviews. In purportedly refusing to comply, the 6’7" Sefolosha also allegedly insulted the 5’7" Giancona by calling him a “midget.” Police also say Sefolosha made aggressive movements in the direction of another officer, Daniel Dongvort. On Tuesday, Giacona testified that after observing Sefolosha’s allegedly antagonistic behavior and hostile interactions, he had no choice but to place Sefolosha in handcuffs. Assistant District Attorney Jesse Matthews describes Sefolosha—who according to Basketball-Reference.com has earned $26 million during his NBA career—as displaying “a sense of entitlement and disdain” in his interactions with the police officers investigating a crime scene.
Sefolosha and his attorney, Alex Spiro, paint a very different account of the altercation. The defense’s view is that Sefolosha was fully cooperative and that Sefolosha and Antic were merely attempting to return to the hotel where the Hawks were staying. Spiro told jurors that Giacona acted in a racist way by targeting Sefolosha as somehow involved with criminal activity. Along those lines, Spiro insists that Giancona prejudicially profiled Sefolosha as “a black man in a hoodie” and then, along with another officer, “grabbed” and “smashed” Sefolosha to the ground. According to Spiro, this incident caused Sefolosha to suffer a broken fibula in his leg and ligament damage to his ankle. These injuries prevented Sefolosha from playing in the 2015 NBA playoffs. Dongvort, however, testified that Sefolosha admitted that the leg injury had occurred prior to the incident (a point disputed by Spiro, who reminded jurors on Tuesday that Sefolosha had played for the Hawks in a game against the Phoenix Suns earlier in the day).
In order to convict Sefolosha, all six jurors must unanimously agree that he is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They could instead find him not guilty. If jurors cannot come to a unanimous agreement, there would be a “hung jury” and Sefolosha could be retried at a later date. To a significant degree, the verdict will come down to whether jurors believe the word of Sefolosha or the police. An onlooker standing nearby captured part of the incident on a camera phone, although the video is not thought to be conclusive of whether Sefolosha or the NYPD is at fault (or whether both are to some degree to blame).
It is unclear at this time whether Sefolosha will testify in his own defense. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensures that Sefolosha does not have to testify, but it stands to reason that Sefolosha might elect to do so. In September, Sefolosha declined an offer by prosecutors where if he agreed to partake in one day of community service and avoid legal issues for six months, all charges against him would be dropped. Sefolosha rebuffed the offer because, according to Spiro, Sefolosha wants to clear his name and also expose the arresting officers as having acted in a racist and injurious way. Given those goals, Sefolosha would seem more likely than a typical criminal defendant to testify in his own trial.
Turning down a settlement offer that would have amounted to no punishment and no criminal record carries legal risk for Sefolosha. If the jury convicts Sefolosha, Judge Robert Mandelbaum could sentence him to jail. Sefolosha’s two misdemeanor charges are classified as “Class A” misdemeanors—the most serious kind of misdemeanors under New York Law—and each carries a possible sentence of up to 12 months in jail.
While a verdict in the criminal trial is only days away, the legal dimensions of the Sefolosha case may go on for some time. The NYPD is conducting an internal investigation into the incident and the NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board—which an independent agency that recommends against NYPD officers accused of excessive force and abuse of authority—has also launched a probe. It is also possible that Sefolosha will file a civil rights lawsuit against the NYPD and the officers who he says unlawfully hurt him. To the extent Sefolosha’s injuries have damaged his NBA career—he is still rehabbing—and to the extent Sefolosha could prove that the officers were an unlawful cause of those injuries, Sefolosha could likely raise a compelling argument that he has suffered significant monetary damages. Especially at the “advanced” age of 31 (for NBA players), Sefolosha losing time to injuries, or those injuries permanently robbing him of quickness, could signal an early end to Sefolosha’s career.
SI.com will continue to follow the Sefolosha legal matter.
Michael McCann is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. This fall he is teaching an undergraduate course at UNH titled “Deflategate.” McCann is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law and he teaches “Intellectual Property Law in Sports” in the Oregon Law Sports Law Institute.