HOUSTON -- A Houston-area police officer was acquitted Tuesday of shooting an aspiring major league baseball player who he mistakenly believed was armed and in a stolen vehicle.
Jurors deliberated for nearly four hours before finding Bellaire police Sgt. Jeffrey Cotton not guilty of aggravated assault by a public servant for the 2008 shooting that injured Robert Tolan, the son of former major leaguer Bobby Tolan.
After the verdict, Cotton smiled and shook hands with other Bellaire police officers but Tolan and his family left the Houston courtroom. Cotton, 40, could have faced up to life in prison if convicted.
"I'm glad that it's over and I just want to go back to work," Cotton said outside the courtroom. He has been on administrative leave since the shooting and said he plans to speak to his police chief about returning.
In a statement, Tolan and his family said they were "obviously disappointed" in the verdict but would turn their focus on a lawsuit they filed that accuses Bellaire police of racial profiling, accusations that officers and city officials have denied. Tolan is black, and Cotton is white.
"We remain hopeful that our family may still find justice," the statement said.
Prosecutors "respect the decision of the jury," said Harris County District Attorney's Office spokeswoman Donna Hawkins.
Cotton, a 10-year police veteran, shot Tolan in the chest at his family's home in the Houston enclave of Bellaire early New Year's Eve 2008, after officers mistakenly tried to arrest him and his cousin for driving a stolen car. An officer typed in the wrong license plate when checking Tolan's sport utility vehicle.
The injury ended Tolan's baseball career.
Cotton told jurors last week that he shot Tolan after seeing him reach into his waistband, believing he was trying to get a weapon, as he jumped off the ground from laying face down while being arrested. Cotton said he believed his life was in danger.
But prosecutors said Cotton was reckless.
Assistant District Attorney Clint Greenwood told jurors Tuesday that Cotton and other officers over-dramatized the danger they were in. Tolan and his cousin did not have weapons, only paper bags filled with burgers and fries, Greenwood said.
When Tolan's parents came out of their home to protest what was going on, Cotton manhandled Tolan's mother and slammed her into a garage door, the prosecutor said.
Tolan testified that he was on one knee protesting Cotton pushing his mother when he was shot.
Cotton fired three shots, including one that hit Tolan. Surgeons were not able to remove the bullet, which lodged in his liver. It prevented him from following his father, who played for five teams during a 13-year career, into major league baseball.
Tolan's lawsuit, filed against Cotton and Bellaire officials, accuses the community and police of having a history of racial profiling, false arrests and racial harassment. The suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Houston.