After brief deliberations, a Ramsey County jury found St. Paul police officer Michael Soucheray II not guilty of assault for allegedly punching a suicidal 14-year-old girl.

The jury of five women and one man received the case about 11:40 a.m. and returned with a verdict about 1:45 p.m. A prosecutor argued that Soucheray punched the girl out of anger, while Soucheray's lawyer said it was an act of self-defense using a distraction technique that made minimal to no physical contact.

"I'm glad this is over with, and that I can go back to work for St. Paul," Soucheray said after hugging and shaking hands with several supporters in the courtroom, including uniformed officers.

The police department said Thursday afternoon that Soucheray remains on paid leave. After the verdict, Chief Todd Axtell issued a strongly worded statement about the actions that squad video captured that night last year.

"As the city's police chief, I am deeply disappointed by what the video shows," Axtell said. "The officer's actions do not in any way, shape or form reflect or align with our values, expectations or mission."

Axtell said the department will move forward with its own "internal process."

"Now that the jury has made its decision, I will once again respond as swiftly as the law allows to ensure that our internal process addresses this matter properly," Axtell said. "While state law prevents the department from discussing the details of the internal process at this time, I assure the people we serve that we will provide more information about this incident and any action the department takes once we are legally allowed."

Prosecutor Christopher Bates told jurors in closing arguments Thursday that Soucheray acted out of anger after the girl spat in his face, and that he later concocted the distraction defense.

Defense attorney Peter Wold said that his client acted in self-defense. Wold also used a derogatory term to compare the girl to people with severe mental disabilities.

"They probably gave her the best lesson she's benefited from in a long time," Wold said of Soucheray and his partner, officer Chris Rhoades. "They didn't enable her to manipulate the situation."

"It was like that," Wold said, snapping his fingers. "She turned into a good young woman. … She said she was sorry."

Soucheray, 39, was tried in Ramsey County on one count of misdemeanor fifth-degree assault for allegedly punching the girl twice and grabbing her face while she was handcuffed in his squad.

Police were called to a shelter for sexually exploited girls, Brittany's Place, on Dec. 1 because the girl had cut herself with a metal object, was suicidal and refused to agree to a "safety plan." A staff member testified that she wanted the girl transported to a hospital.

Bates, an assistant Minneapolis city attorney handling the case to avoid conflicts of interest, told jurors that Soucheray's testimony, in which he claimed to use a "startle flinch response" technique to distract the girl, was not credible. Soucheray testified Wednesday that he flung his arm toward the girl to startle her so she would stop spitting, and that he "may have brushed her cheek."

Bates showed jurors a quote from Soucheray's police report in which Soucheray wrote " … out of natural reaction, I struck [the girl] in the face with my left hand …"

Bates raised the question of why Soucheray didn't instead write that the girl made allegations of being punched.

"A police report is supposed to be true," Bates told jurors. "You don't write lies in a police report."

Wold ended by trying to discredit the girl's testimony. He recalled growing up in North Dakota, where his grandmother cared for troubled children with mental disabilities.

"I was reminded of that seeing [the girl]," he said. "She doesn't get a free pass under the law because life may have been unfair to her to this point."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708