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Bellaire shooting victim, family testify at trial

Thursday, May 06, 2010

It was a dramatic day of testimony Thursday in the trial of a Bellaire police sergeant who shot a Bellaire resident during a confrontation on the morning of New Year's Eve 2008. The police officer is charged with assault by a public servant.

Bellaire Police Sergeant Jeffrey Cotton shot an unarmed Robbie Tolan, 24, just 32 seconds after he arrived at his family's home. Late Thursday afternoon, Robbie Tolan recounted for the jury the frustration and anger he felt towards police after he was wrongly accused of driving a stolen vehicle.

It was a moment almost two years in the making and for Tolan. Explaining to the jury what happened the night he was shot outside his Bellaire home was like having a huge weight lifted off his shoulders.

"I'm relieved this is over. For me, at least," he said.

Bellaire police pulled over Tolan, believing he was an auto theft suspect. As he was laying face down on the ground, Tolan admitted to being angry at police after he repeatedly told them they were making a huge mistake. He said he reached his breaking point when he saw Sgt. Cotton push his mother against the garage.

"I pushed myself to my knees, said, 'Get your hands off my mom,' and then he shot me," said Robbie Tolan.

He said it all happened so fast.

"I was gasping for air. I couldn't do anything. I blinked and I was on the ground," Tolan said.

Defense attorneys say Cotton shot him because he believed he was about to be shot by an auto theft suspect.

"I thought he was drawing a weapon," said Cotton on a videotaped interview.

Jurors saw the tape which showed Cotton talking to investigators about what happened. Cotton was overheard saying, "I couldn't believe he was getting up. I kept thinking to myself, don't do it. Don't do it. "

Both Cotton and Tolan agreed that the officer discovered Tolan was unarmed by rolling him onto his back after he shot him. The bullet is still lodged in his liver. More than 15 months later, Tolan remembers the pain as if it were yesterday.

"The burning, the singing, the throbbing. I couldn't breathe," he said.

Tolan spent 3 weeks in the hospital. He is still living with his aunt in Missouri City. He says as far as he's concerned, his home in Bellaire is no longer a home, but a crime scene.

Victim's mother, father took the stand

Earlier Thursday, both Tolan's mother and father testified in the trial.

The victim's mother, Marian Tolan, told the jury she was in disbelief when Bellaire police stopped her son and her nephew in front of her home, accusing them of driving a stolen SUV. Marian Tolan said she repeatedly told the officer it was all mistake, but claims he wouldn't listen.

Marian Tolan testified how the situation outside her home in the early morning hours of December 31, 2008, went from bad to worse in a matter of seconds. She told the jury about the bruises she received after Cotton grabbed her by the arm and threw her up against the garage.

The victim's father, Robert Tolan Sr., also took the stand Thursday. Tolan Sr., a retired professional baseball player, told the jury he rushed outside after hearing noises and arguing. He told jurors police refused to listen to him or his wife after they rushed out of the house and repeatedly told the officers, "This is my son. This is my house. This is my car. We live here."

Tolan Sr. said another officer drew his weapon and directed him over to the Suburban parked in the couple's driveway. He told the jury, "Two to three seconds later I heard a bang. A second or two after that I heard a gunshot."

Tolan Sr. explained that the bang he heard was the sound of his wife being thrown up against the garage by a police officer. He said after his son had been shot, Tolan Sr. heard his wife say, "Call on Jesus. Pray Robert. Call on the Lord."

"We've heard a lot from the Bellaire Police Department. We trust that the jury will hear all of the evidence and come to the right decision," said Jeffrey Berg, Robbie Tolan's civil attorney.

Officer describes shooting on videotape

On Thursday morning, jurors saw a videotape of Cotton explaining to investigators what happened about four hours after the incident.

On the tape, Sgt. Cotton could be overheard telling investigators during the walk-through of the scene that when he arrived at Tolan's home, Tolan was already lying on the ground. At that point, Sgt. Cotton explained that he was operating under the assumption that Officer Edwards had already chased the two men whom he believed were auto theft suspects.

"He was on the ground and everything was going to be sorted out without deadly force," said Cotton in the videotape.

Cotton went on to tell investigators that he couldn't believe Tolan started to get up and when he did, Cotton claims Tolan had his hand in his waistband as if to reach for something.

"I couldn't believe he was getting up. I kept thinking to myself, don't do it, don't do it," Cotton said in the videotape. "I thought he was drawing a gun."

Cotton said Tolan began shouting at him to get his hands off his mother. Cotton described Tolan's mother at the time as being very agitated and said that she refused to listen to anything he was saying.

"I rolled him onto his back and checked for weapons and didn't find one," said Cotton in the videotape.

Cotton went on to explain that everything happened so fast.

The defense maintains Cotton was following police procedure. Cotton says he fired three shots at Robbie Tolan because he believed he was about to be shot by an auto theft suspect.

If convicted of the charge of assault by a public servant, Cotton could spend anywhere from five years to life in prison.

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bellaire, local, andy cerota
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