While Central district residents and the local media have spent the last few months focused on the inquest into Aaron Roberts' death, another case with similar civil rights and police accountability implications has been brewing in federal court for over a year, and the trial is set to begin next week.

On September 20, 1998, two black men in their early 30s, Kenyatto Allah and Gregory Lewis, say they went to the scene of a crash involving a stolen car at 25th and Cherry Street, to see if they could help. They ended up getting arrested. Ronald Martin--a white police officer who has patrolled the East Precinct for over a decade--suspected Allah was the car thief, and tried to arrest him. The two men tried to explain the situation, but ended up under arrest for assault, resisting arrest, and obstructing an officer.

The men feel the situation wasn't a simple misunderstanding: They feel they were the victims of police retaliation. Lewis and Allah wrote a complaint against Martin before the September 1998 situation. The complaint--for "conduct unbecoming of an officer"--stemmed from an incident where Allah was teaching at a teen center, and Martin came into his classroom to arrest two of his students. They felt Martin treated the students roughly. The complaint was investigated, and Martin was cleared.

Now the two men are suing Martin, along with the police department and the City of Seattle, for violating their civil rights with false arrest, excessive force, and assault and battery. Attorney Richard Mitchell of Dorsey & Whitney LLP took the case in November 2000. It goes before Judge Barbara Rothstein on October 31.

On September 20, 1998, Allah, Lewis, and two friends--all of them black--met at Garfield High School, near 25th Avenue and East Cherry Street in the Central District, to work out at the playground.

The men say that Martin drove by in his patrol car and saw them exercising. The men clearly recognized him.

"His eyes, they have a certain kind of stare to them, a very unique stare," Brion Roberts, one of Allah and Lewis' friends on the scene that day, said later in court. Martin drove off after a few seconds.

At 3:20 p.m., the four men heard a crash. A stolen silver Honda Civic had slammed into a nearby utility pole. One of the men ran to the nearby community center to call 911, and the other three headed to the scene of the crash to see if anyone was hurt.

Allah has emergency medical training from Harborview Medical Center, so when he saw the scene--the driver was gone, and the passenger was pressed against the windshield, having trouble breathing--he tried to help. He climbed in the car, then put the passenger's head back and loosened his seat belt to help him breathe. When medics arrived at the scene, Allah got out of the car to let them attend to the injured passenger.

According to Officer Ronald Martin, as Allah was backing out of the car, he approached Allah and told him he was under arrest for suspicion of auto theft.

"As far as I was concerned, he was a passenger in a stolen vehicle," Officer Martin said in court documents. "I had no reason to believe otherwise at that point."

According to the officer's police report, Martin informed Allah that he was under arrest for auto theft. Martin says he took Allah by the wrist and tried to escort him to the patrol car. Allah resisted, and Martin instead pushed him onto the hood of the crashed vehicle, while bystanders protested.

Allah, meanwhile, says Martin grabbed him without warning as he backed out of the car.

"I didn't know who it was, and I was slammed onto the hood of the car," Allah said in court documents. "I heard the crowd saying, 'It wasn't him, he wasn't in the stolen car.'" Allah was never charged with auto theft.

Then when Lewis complained about Martin's treatment of Allah, Lewis was manhandled by the cops, he says. Lewis fought back in self-defense--kicking and punching Martin--and was arrested, according to documents.

Allah, who was now yelling at officers about their treatment of Lewis, says he ran away when one cop reached for a gun. Allah was chased and also arrested.

Allah and Lewis were charged with assault, obstruction, and resisting arrest. They went to trial in early 1999, and were acquitted on all but one charge. The jury was hung on Allah's resisting arrest charge (because he ran), but the city dropped the charge.

Now the men are back in court, fighting against the city and the officer.

amy@thestranger.com

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