Policeman is indicted in killing Officer faces trial for manslaughter in death of teen

April 29, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer Staff writer Robert Hilson Jr. contributed to this article.

A Baltimore police officer who fatally shot a 14-year-old suspected car thief in the back was indicted yesterday on a charge of manslaughter.

Officer Edward T. Gorwell II, 24, was charged in the April 17 death of Simmont Donta Thomas, who was shot while fleeing from a stolen car in a densely wooded area at the edge of Gwynns Falls Park in West Baltimore.

Officer Gorwell, a two-year veteran of the force, turned himself in to homicide detectives shortly after a city grand jury returned the indictment against him yesterday morning. After being booked at the Central District police station, the officer was taken before a District Court commissioner, who released him on $50,000 unsecured bond.

The Police Department has scheduled a hearing for today to determine whether Officer Gorwell will be suspended -- and, if so, whether the suspension will be without pay -- while awaiting trial. The officer, who was placed on administrative duties with his police powers suspended after the shooting, faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the manslaughter charge.

Officer Gorwell is scheduled to be arraigned May 28 in Baltimore Circuit Court; no trial date has been set.

The shooting of the Thomas youth was the first of four fatal shootings by area police officers in the past 12 days but the only one to lead to criminal charges.

At a news conference yesterday in his lawyer's downtown office, Officer Gorwell said he believed he was returning fire when he shot the youth, adding: "I know I did the right thing."

The boy's parents said they were pleased that the officer was charged, but disappointed he was not indicted on a charge of first-degree murder.

The shooting occurred about 1 a.m. near Gwynns Falls Park, where the officer chased a 1992 Chrysler New Yorker that had been reported stolen earlier from the Mondawmin area, police have said. The car -- occupied by five juveniles -- crashed into at least two cars during the chase and came to a stop in the 900 block of Ellicott Driveway, on the eastern edge of the park. After the juveniles bailed out of the car, Officer Gorwell chased them on foot and fired a shot. The Thomas youth -- who had been in the rear seat of the car -- collapsed to the ground and was pronounced dead at the scene, police said. City State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms immediately ordered a grand jury probe of the shooting.

Assistant State's Attorney Timothy J. Doory, who presented the case to the grand jury, said the panel met every business day since April 20 to consider the case. Court records show the witnesses who testified before the grand jury included: four city homicide detectives; four other police officers; three of the other passengers in the car; and three residents of the 900 block of Ellicott Driveway, the scene of the shooting, who have said they heard only one shot fired.

"Anybody who knew anything about it was brought in," Mr. Doory said.

As the grand jury began to look into the case, Officer Gorwell's lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, called for the grand jurors to visit the scene of the shooting in the middle of the night "to get an idea what it's like to chase someone in the dark, near the woods."

Mr. Doory said the grand jury visited the scene after nightfall last Thursday, but did not go at 1 a.m. and did not listen to testimony at the scene. Mr. Belsky yesterday said Officer Gorwell should have been allowed to explain his actions to the grand jury in a setting that featured the background sounds and lighting found in the middle of the night.

"Had they done that, I believe the result would have been quite different," Mr. Belsky said.

"He has nothing to hide. He doesn't need Fifth Amendment rights," Mr. Belsky told reporters. "He'll tell his story here. He'll tell his story in court."

"I was returning fire," Officer Gorwell said yesterday, "I heard a gunshot, or what appeared to be a gunshot." He said he was scared because he made a good target, wearing his white police shirt and standing under a street light.

"The department trains us to shoot to incapacitate," he said. "I'm very remorseful for what happened. I was put in that predicament that I had to take that kind of action.

"I hoped it wouldn't go this far," said the officer, a lifelong Baltimore resident and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical Senior High School graduate who joined the force in November 1990. "It's tearing me up inside and my family, when I talk to them about it, they get all worked up."

Mr. Belsky and Lt. Lee Nevin, president of Lodge 3 of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge, bargaining agent for city officers, noted that the Thomas youth was committing a crime when he was slain.

"I'm not saying anybody should be killed for stealing a car," Lieutenant Nevin said, "but if that kid had been in bed instead of stealing a car, he would be alive today and I think that's been forgotten."

The slain youth's parents said the indictment wasn't what they expected.

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