Chicago police Officer Aldo Brown, left, leaves the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on the first day of his excessive force trial Oct. 20, 2015, in Chicago (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Jason Meisner | Contact Reporter Chicago Tribune

October 20, 2015, 6:56 PM

The veteran Chicago police officer unloaded with a right fist to the suspect’s face without warning.

As surveillance video rolled at the South Side convenience store, Officer Aldo Brown pushed a stunned Jecque Howard back against a cooler, choked him with his left hand, then ripped another powerful shot to Howard’s midsection.

Seconds later, as Howard lay facedown in handcuffs by a display of antifreeze, Brown reached into Howard’s back pocket and found a loaded handgun. After holding the weapon up for his partner to see, Brown gave Howard a swift kick.

The recording of Howard’s beating and arrest at the Omar Salma convenience store three years ago took center stage in a federal courtroom Tuesday as Brown’s trial got underway on charges of using excessive force and lying in police reports.

The trial at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse comes amid a continuing national debate over the use of force by police after a series of high-profile deaths mostly of unarmed African-Americans in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Cleveland and elsewhere.

On the first day of testimony, jurors watched intently as prosecutors played segments of the 13-minute video over and over on monitors in the courtroom, even displaying still frames of Brown with his fist cocked and about to strike. But the recording does not include audio, giving the defense some wiggle room to try to justify Brown’s actions.

Howard took the witness stand, conceding he used marijuana daily and started carrying the .22-caliber revolver for protection because of the dangerous neighborhood he lived in.

Lawyers on both sides of the case drew sharp contrasts in opening remarks to the jury.

Prosecutors said Brown broke the law when he viciously attacked Howard without provocation during a search of a store where Howard worked as a stock clerk.

The fact that Howard had a gun and a small amount of marijuana on him was no excuse for the officers’ actions, alleged prosecutors, who said Brown tried to cover up his misconduct by claiming in his reports that Howard had resisted arrest.

“Under the Constitution, the police cannot beat people up in order to find evidence, and that’s exactly what he did,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jessica Romero told jurors. “(Howard) never resisted, he never tried to flee and he never fought back.”

But Brown’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, called the prosecution case “upside down,” likening it to a movie in which a director tried to fool the audience with a last-second plot twist. Brown, a 13-year veteran officer, was just doing his job investigating complaints that people had been selling drugs inside the store when Howard, knowing he had a loaded gun in his pocket, resisted being searched, he said.

“They have made the criminal the hero and the hero the criminal,” Herbert said. “Aldo Brown was the hero in this case. … If he had not done what he did that day, we’d be here talking about orphans, talking about widows, about dead people.”

Brown was stripped of police powers shortly after the September 2012 incident and has since been assigned to paid desk duty.

Howard’s mother, Fannie, told the Tribune after the officer’s indictment last November that she had lost a lot of respect for the police because of the incident.

“I’m scared of them because I know what they’re capable of,” she said. “You have some good ones and you have some bad ones. But you’re supposed to be able to trust them.”

According to the charges, Brown and his partner, Officer George Stacker, both plainclothes tactical officers assigned to the crime-ridden South Chicago District, entered the store in the 2800 block of East 76th Street shortly before 1:30 p.m. and handcuffed Howard and several others, including customers.

The video, shot by various ceiling cameras from several angles, showed Brown searching some of the customers’ pockets before walking up and down the aisles of the tiny store, apparently looking for contraband.

At the rear of the store, Brown found a backpack with a bottle of liquor and empty plastic bags that are typically used to package marijuana. According to prosecutors, Howard told the officers it belonged to him. Meanwhile, Stacker removed the handcuffs from Howard.

At that point, Howard testified, Brown returned to the front of the store and ordered him to “drop my pants and lift up my shirt.”

Surveillance footage showed that as Howard complied, Brown punched him on the right side of his head and pushed him back as Howard raised his arms defensively.

Howard testified that as Brown held him by the neck against the cooler, the officer yelled, ‘”I know you have something. If you have it, give it to me.’”

“So I went to my back left pocket and gave him the few bags of marijuana I did have,” Howard said.

The video then showed Brown cock his right hand and deliver a hard punch to Howard’s midsection. Brown then dragged Howard toward the back of the aisle. As Howard lay on his back on the floor, Brown hit him a third time in the face with his fist. He then rolled Howard over and handcuffed him again. After finding the gun in his back pocket, Brown kicked Howard in the side.

Howard suffered bruises and scrapes but was not seriously hurt in the attack, prosecutors said.

According to the indictment, Brown made false statements in two separate police reports about the incident, including that Howard was an “active resister” who “fled” and “pulled away.” Brown also failed to indicate he had punched or kicked the victim, the charges alleged.

Prosecutors said Brown also tried to cover his tracks by returning to the store the next day to try to confiscate the video.

Mohammad Salah, who was working as the cashier on the day of the beating as well as the next day, testified Tuesday that he lied to Brown and said he didn’t have the footage. In fact, he had already allowed Howard and his brother to record it with their cellphones as it played on a monitor. Their version of the video was later posted on YouTube.

“I felt like (the police) did their job very bad, and it was a crime that had just occurred in the store that I work in,” Salah, 25, testified. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Howard was charged with felony unlawful use of a weapon and misdemeanor marijuana possession and no valid firearm owner’s identification card, records show. But the charges were later dropped. He later filed an excessive force lawsuit that the city settled for $100,000, records show.

On cross-examination, Herbert pointed out discrepancies in Howard’s statements to the FBI and the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates alleged misconduct by Chicago police officers, about when and how he purchased the gun. Howard also acknowledged that he didn’t hand over the weapon when Brown ordered him to show any contraband and that he had no valid firearm owner’s identification card.

“That’s something that never crossed my mind,” Howard said in a matter-of-fact tone.

In pretrial motions, Herbert had sought to question Howard about a series of rap videos he had created and posted on the Internet that allegedly showed him smoking marijuana, proclaiming a gang affiliation and making anti-police statements like “chi city police so corrupt — so if you don’t give a damn we don’t give a (expletive).”

But U.S. District Judge Virginia Kendall blocked that line of questioning in a ruling earlier this week, saying the videos would be “highly prejudicial” and had no bearing on the charges against Brown.