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2 Yanks, 1 Red Sox employee charged

Clerk-magistrate says case vs. players 'weak'

A Roxbury District Court clerk-magistrate charged two New York Yankees and a Fenway Park groundskeeper with misdemeanor assault and battery yesterday for a brawl in New York's bullpen that began after the groundskeeper cheered for Boston during a playoff game last season.

 

But, even though he brought the criminal charges, Michael W. Neighbors said Boston police and prosecutors presented a "weak case" against Yankee pitcher Jeff Nelson and outfielder Karim Garcia in connnection with the Oct. 11 fracas with Paul K. Williams Jr.

Neighbors also ruled that there was enough evidence to go forward with Nelson's cross-complaint against Williams, 24, a part-time groundskeeper and middle school teacher from Derry, N.H.

The fight, captured in part on national television and broken up by Fenway security and Boston police, took place during a contentious Game 3 in the American League championship series.

Williams, 24, told police he was attacked by Nelson and later Garcia after Nelson confronted him for waving a towel and cheering for the Red Sox. Williams was treated at a hospital and left wearing a neck brace. According to his lawyer, Patrick T. Jones, Williams suffered a cervical injury and a severely deviated septum and may have permanently lost his sense of smell. Nelson, 37, a Yankee relief pitcher who is now a free agent, later filed a cross-complaint charging Williams with assault and battery. Nelson said Williams spat at and assaulted him first.

The clerk-magistrate said the investigation of all three cases was subpar, with only the police incident report and testimony by a Boston police detective salvaging the charge against Garcia. Neighbors added that the case against Nelson was weakened by a lack of medical records and scarce interviews with witnesses.

"Again, regardless of the weak case that the Commonwealth and the unclear direction and attention . . . of police on the night in question and failed attempts after the incident to complete the investigation, including interviewing all participants, the complaint will issue," Neighbors said in reference to Nelson's charge.

In the cross-complaint filed by Nelson, Neighbors said police photos showing a lack of defensive wounds on the groundskeeper's hands "suggests the possibility of aggression on his part." Neighbors said there was clearly probable cause to charge Williams, because no evidence was presented in his defense.

Neighbors, who is not a judge, had to find probable cause to bring the charges forward against the three men. In a traditional criminal trial, the burden of proof, typically referred to as "beyond a reasonable doubt," is much higher. Although none of the accused men attended yesterday's brief hearing, all three probably will appear to face charges Jan. 7.

The misdemeanor assault and battery charges carry a maximum penalty of 2 1/2 years in prison or a $500 fine.

Suffolk district attorney spokesman David Procopio said prosecutors would continue to collect information about the case. Prosecutors "will continue to evaluate the evidence as the investigation and the cases progress," said a statement from Procopio. "As in all cases, we will be guided by the facts and the law."

He said prosecutors had yet to decide whether they would prosecute the three cases individually.

"I think the process just has to play out now," Nelson's lawyer, James M. Merberg, said after the hearing.

Garcia's lawyer, Gerard F. Malone, said he was surprised that the case will be heard in a criminal setting, having said in the past that he and Merberg had hoped the issue could be settled through a civil trial.

"I think it's telling to some degree that the clerk-magistrate indicated that the testimony was minimal and weak in many instances, and so we'll proceed from there," Malone said. Williams's lawyer said the assault and battery charge against his client will have no bearing on criminal charges against Nelson or Garcia or the civil lawsuit that Jones said will be filed within the next month.

"He's not surprised, but he's certainly disappointed . . . to find himself part of the criminal justice system," Jones said. "Time will tell if [Nelson's cross complaint against Williams] is an abuse of the criminal justice system or just a tactic of some type to try and deflect the charges against him."

According to legal specialists and sports lawyers, it is the first time in recent memory that professional sports figures and their alleged victim will face criminal charges for an on-field altercation.

Sports agent Brad Blank said the rare case is largely being fueled by media attention, both from the time television cameras focused on the fight to the clerk-magistrate's latest ruling. "I guess the media plays a role," Blank said. "It's not supposed to, by the way . . . but that's a big part of it."

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