Two city officers cleared after probe of man's death in police custody

March 27, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

A Baltimore grand jury yesterday ended nearly two full days of deliberation by declining to issue any criminal indictments against two police officers involved in the March 3 arrest of a drug suspect who later died in police custody.

"All questions of law relating to an unlawful death were presented to the grand jury," said State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms. "The grand jury declined to return any charges."

Mr. Simms, the city's chief prosecutor, said it was appropriate to present the evidence in the death of 29-year-old Robert E. Privett to "an independent body" such as the grand jury for full consideration: "There were sufficient unresolved legal and factual issues," he said.

The grand jury's decision was greeted as vindication by at least one of the officers involved, who told reporters yesterday that he was greatly relieved: "I'm glad that it's over with," Officer Thomas R. Jefferies said at a news conference at the offices of Henry R. Belsky, an attorney for the police union. "I knew all along that we'd only done our job . . . I'm sorry that it turned out the way it did."

An 11-year patrol veteran, Officer Jefferies and Officer Robert L. Richburg, who assisted in the arrest, were identified by prosecutors as the subjects of the grand jury probe into Mr. Privett's death, which was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner. The victim suffered a ruptured spleen and four broken ribs.

Police contended that Mr. Privett resisted arrest -- an account that was confirmed by some civilian witnesses, sources said -- by elbowing Officer Jefferies, who fell to the pavement, breaking his left elbow. The officer appeared before reporters with his arm in a sling.

Mr. Privett was eventually subdued and placed in the rear of a police wagon, which then traveled around Southeast Baltimore for about an hour, picking up other prisoners, before arriving at the district lock-up where it was determined that Mr. Privett was dead.

Mr. Simms declined to discuss the deliberations of the grand jury, which are secret by law, but he said attention was given to Mr. Privett's medical condition at the time of arrest. Mr. Privett was infected with the AIDS virus and his spleen was enlarged from intravenous drug use -- a factor that may have contributed to the fatal injury.

Likewise, the grand jury was asked to consider whether the force used by the officers in subduing Mr. Privett was in any way excessive or unjustified under the circumstances.

Mr. Simms said the grand jury heard seven hours of testimony Tuesday from homicide detectives, a medical examiner, civilian witnesses and five officers involved in the arrest -- including Officers Jefferies and Richburg, who were invited to testify and did so.

Grand jurors were offered "a range of possible outcomes" according to Mr. Simms, from issuing a second-degree murder charge, to manslaughter, to issuing no charges at all. Prosecutors presented the evidence without favoring any outcome, Mr. Simms said.

The grand jury action ends the threat of criminal charges against any officer involved in Mr. Privett's arrest, but it marks the beginning of an internal probe by the Baltimore Police nTC Department, which could issue administrative sanctions.

Internal Investigation Division detectives "will receive all of the information from the investigation conducted by the homicide unit and make an evaluation," said Police Agent Arlene K. Jenkins, a department spokeswoman. That process will take several days, she said.

The grand jury did not consider the issue of police actions after Mr. Privett's arrest. At least one witness had told investigators that Mr. Privett complained of illness before being placed in the police wagon at North Linwood Avenue and East Fayette Street.

Other prisoners placed in the wagon said it was obvious that Mr. Privett, face down on the floor for the entire trip, was in distress. They said it seemed obvious as well to the wagon driver, Officer Robert Kuhl, 53, who at one point told other prisoners not to step on the victim.

But none of the other prisoners spoke to Officer Kuhl regarding Mr. Privett and Mr. Belsky, the police union attorney, noted yesterday that the interior lights on the wagon were not functioning that evening. Radio tapes also indicate that Officer Kuhl tried to return to the lockup after Mr. Privett's arrest, but was sent to other locations because no other wagon was available, Mr. Belsky said.

Such issues will likely be considered by the administrative review. For that reason, Mr. Belsky yesterday did not allow Officer Jefferies to answer questions about the specifics of the case.

But the 31-year-old officer told reporters that he viewed the grand jury probe as the most trying ordeal of his life. The officer thanked neighborhood residents in his patrol area for signing petitions of support for him.

"My thanks to the community for backing me," he said, but added that he understood "that a person's life is no longer. . . . It's going to be around with me a lot longer than any investigation."

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