Jury decides not to indict officers Case involved suspect who died in custody.

March 30, 1992|By David Simon | David Simon,Staff Writer

A Baltimore grand jury has decided not to indict two police officers involved in the March 3 arrest of a drug suspect who later died in police custody.

An internal police department investigation is now under way.

State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms, the city's chief prosecutor, said it was appropriate to present the evidence in the patrol wagon death of Robert E. Privett, 29, 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 not to indict was greeted as vindication by at least one of the officers involved, who said last week he was greatly relieved: "I'm glad that it's over with," Officer Thomas R. Jefferies, 31, 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."

Officer Jefferies, an 11-year patrol veteran, and Officer Robert L. Richburg, who assisted in the arrest, were subjects of the grand jury probe into Mr. Privett's death, which was ruled a homicide by a medical examiner. He 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.

Mr. Privett eventually was subdued and placed in 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 Mr. Privett was found dead.

Mr. Simms declined to discuss the grand jury's deliberations, which are secret by law, but he said attention was given to Mr. Privett's medical condition. Mr. Privett was infected with the AIDS virus and his spleen was enlarged from intravenous drug use.

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 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," from a second-degree murder charge, to manslaughter, to no charges at all, he 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 Department, which could issue administrative sanctions. That process will take several days, said Police Agent Arlene K. Jenkins, a department spokeswoman.

The grand jury did not consider the issue of police actions after Mr. Privett's arrest at Linwood Avenue and Fayette Street.

Other prisoners 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 driver, Officer Robert Kuhl, 53, who at one point told prisoners not to step on the victim.

But none of the other prisoners spoke to Officer Kuhl about Mr. Privett, and Mr. Belsky said interior lights on the wagon were not functioning that evening.

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