The state medical examiner's office yesterday issued a ruling of homicide in the death of a 29-year-old drug suspect found lying in the rear of a Baltimore police wagon two weeks ago -- a ruling that may send the case to a grand jury for investigation.
Robert L. Privett died of intra-abdominal bleeding resulting from the rupture of his spleen, the medical examiner's office announced, noting that the injury resulted after Mr. Privett was subdued by arresting officers, handcuffed and placed in the police wagon on March 2.
He was found to be dead when the wagon arrived at the Southeastern District lockup about an hour after the arrest.
Mr. Privett's death is under investigation by city homicide detectives and prosecutors assigned to the violent crimes unit of the state's attorney's office, but sources close to the investigation say the case will probably go to a city grand jury, which could issue criminal charges against the officers involved.
The decision to initiate a grand jury investigation, which could begin as early as next week, would be made by State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms following his own review of the investigation.
Four Southeastern District officers were present when Mr. Privett was arrested for narcotics violations at East Fayette Street and North Linwood Avenue. The officers have been placed on administrative duties pending the outcome. A fifth officer, the driver of the police wagon, has also been assigned to station-house duties.
The officers at the arrest scene have been identified as David H. Childs, 31; Kevin B. Evans, 30; Robert L. Richburg, 36; and Thomas E. Jeffries III, who suffered an arm injury during the confrontation with Mr. Privett and remains on medical leave.
The driver of the wagon, John W. Kuhl, 53, was not present during Mr. Privett's arrest and is not directly involved in the death investigation. But sources said his failure to seek medical attention for Mr. Privett could lead to administrative sanctions.
Henry L. Belsky, a police union attorney representing some of the officers involved, said they initially were advised not to make voluntary statements to prosecutors, but the four arresting officers consented to interviews this week.
Mr. Belsky said there is "nothing to hide in this case. I don't believe they used excessive force. Everything they did was done properly and appropriately."
Mr. Belsky said the autopsy results bolster the officers' position. He noted that Mr. Privett's body was unbruised, an indication he was not beaten.
In fact, the autopsy report does not mention bruising, but it does note that the victim suffered abrasions of the face, arms and hands "consistent with those sustained in a struggle."
The autopsy results also noted that Mr. Privett suffered fractures of four ribs on the left side of his chest and that his spleen had become enlarged because of years of intravenous drug abuse.
The pathologists noted that Mr. Privett had the AIDS virus, which causes enlargement of lymphatic tissue, including the spleen. The condition increased his susceptibility to the tearing of his spleen and the bleeding that resulted, according to medical examiners.
A small vial containing white powder and a makeshift paper envelope that police said the victim had swallowed during his arrest were found in the stomach, and pathologists said evidence of cocaine usage was found in blood samples.
The medical examiner's office delayed its final determination of homicide because it did not have any statements from the
officers who arrested the victim. The ruling of homicide indicates that a death was caused by another human being, but it does not imply criminal intent. A homicide could be the result of a murder, a voluntary manslaughter or an unintentional manslaughter.
Mr. Privett's arrest occurred just after 8 p.m., when two undercover officers, David Childs and Kevin Evans, witnessed an alleged narcotics transaction near Jefferson and Port streets in Southeast Baltimore.
Officer Jeffries said Mr. Privett struck him in his chest with his elbow and a minor altercation followed. Officers Childs and Evans then assisted their colleague, according to police accounts.
Mr. Belsky said the amount of force used during the arrest was "minimal to accomplish what had to be done. At one point [the victim] said he was tired and asked to sit down. They then walked him into the paddy wagon. When he went into the paddy wagon, he made no complaints."
But a source close to the investigation said Mr. Belsky's account is contradicted by at least one civilian witness, who overheard Mr. Privett complain of sickness and ask for medical assistance at the arrest scene.
Neighborhood residents have also offered conflicting versions of the incident, with some suggesting that officers may have used greater force than necessary to subdue the victim.
Officer Kuhl, the driver of the police wagon, spent close to an hour picking up four more prisoners before arriving at the district lockup. During two subsequent stops to load the prisoners, Mr. Privett was seen lying on the floor of the wagon, face down, with no sign of consciousness, the prisoners have said.
The wagon driver clearly noticed Mr. Privett's condition during one of the stops, telling other prisoners to avoid stepping on the prone suspect so that they wouldn't get AIDS. Mr. Privett was pronounced dead shortly after the wagon's arrival at the district.
Department officials said there was a delay in getting the prisoners to the station house that night because two other wagons were out of service for repairs.