Grand jury to probe police-custody fatality Drug suspect, 29, died after arrest by officers

March 21, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

A city grand jury will continue the investigation into the death of Robert E. Privett, a drug suspect who died in a police wagon of injuries sustained in a March 3 confrontation with Baltimore police officers, State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms announced yesterday.

"There are still unresolved factual and legal issues that warrant further review," Mr. Simms said in a news conference called to announce the decision to bring the investigation to the grand jury of the Circuit Court.

While the medical examiner has ruled Mr. Privett's death a homicide -- meaning that it resulted from human intervention -- Mr. Simms said the grand jury would be asked to determine whether or not the extent of force used by officers during his arrest on drug charges was unjustified or excessive.

The grand jury will further try to determine whether arresting officers used sufficient force to cause the death of the Mr. Privett, 29, who sustained four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen during the arrest at East Fayette Street and North Linwood Avenue.

Mr. Privett, a longtime user of intravenous drugs, had been in poor physical health, suffering from an enlarged spleen and infection with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. Nonetheless, police have said that Mr. Privett resisted efforts to detain him -- a fact corroborated by some civilian witnesses. Officer Thomas R. Jefferies was elbowed in the chest by the suspect and fell to the pavement with the suspect, according to police accounts.

The officer later took medical leave for an arm injury.

Mr. Simms said the two Southeastern District patrolmen directly involved in the altercation with Mr. Privett -- Officers Jefferies and Robert L. Richburg -- have been formally advised that they are potential subjects of the grand jury investigation.

The grand jury is to begin taking testimony in the matter on Tuesday. Officers involved in the incident, a medical examiner and "four or five" civilian witnesses to the March 3 arrest are likely to be called as witnesses, Mr. Simms said.

Mr. Privett was pronounced dead at the rear of the Southeastern District headquarters about an hour after his arrest. Although a source close to the investigation said that witnesses overheard the suspect say that he was ill and that he asked for medical assistance at the time of his arrest, Mr. Privett was nonetheless placed in the back of a police wagon and driven around Southeast Baltimore as the wagon driver stopped to load other prisoners.

Those other prisoners have said that the wagon driver, Officer Robert Kuhl, was aware that Mr. Privett was lying face down on the floor of the wagon during the journey.

But Mr. Simms said yesterday that questions about whether Mr. Privett should have received medical attention after his arrest would not be a primary focus of the grand jury probe.

Such issues -- which deal more with civil liability than with criminal intent -- will likely be the focus of an internal police department probe. Mr. Simms said yesterday that any relevant information unearthed by the grand jury could be provided to the department, if so requested.

Instead, the grand jury investigation will concentrate on determining the exact cause of the fatal injuries sustained by Mr. Privett; whether any force used by officers was justified; and if unjustified, whether that force constituted a crime, the prosecutor said.

The vast majority of police-involved deaths in Baltimore are ruled justifiable by city prosecutors. The announcement by Mr. Simms marks the first time since 1988 that a death believed to have resulted from city police action has been sent to a grand jury.

In that year, a grand jury launched a lengthy, inconclusive probe into the December 1987 death of John R. Scott, 21, who was shot to death while fleeing police.

That probe resulted in no indictments, and Mr. Scott's death remains unsolved.

In August 1983, a city grand jury indicted Baltimore Officer Daniel Shanahan in the July shooting death of a black motorcyclist. The case against Officer Shanahan, who was white, became a racially charged issue during that fall's mayoral elections.

Ultimately, the prosecution of Officer Shanahan resulted in a hung jury, followed by acquittal on manslaughter charges, although the officer was later convicted, sentenced and discharged from the police force in a subsequent federal bank theft case unrelated to the shooting.

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