City police's botched handling of the Simmont Thomas case

Gregory P. Kane

June 02, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

IT WAS 6:30 a.m. on April 17 when Myra Green noticed that her 14-year-old son apparently had sneaked out of the house while she and her husband slept.

"I immediately went out into the neighborhood looking for him," she said, recalling the incident a month to the day later.

"It wasn't like him. Even though he knew he'd be in trouble for sneaking out, he would have called me to let me know he was all right."

Her search was fruitless. At about 7:30, she filed a missing person report with the Western District.

An officer came out, took a description of the boy and told Mrs. Green he would cruise the neighborhood and look for him.

"That wasn't good enough for me," said Mrs. Green. "I decided to continue the search for my son myself."

Her search eventually led her to a boy named Tyrell, one of her son's friends and the last one she had seen with him -- at about 10 the night before in her living room. Seeing the desperation on Mrs. Green's face, Tyrell confessed all: He and Mrs. Green's son, along with two other boys, had stolen a car the night before. The car was chased by police and crashed. All four boys got out and ran. The last Tyrell had seen of Simmont Donta Thomas, Mrs. Green's son, the boy was running in the woods, fleeing the police officer.

What happened next is a matter of public record. The officer, Edward T. Gorwell II, fired one shot at Simmont, striking the youth in the back and killing him.

Officer Gorwell was indicted for manslaughter and arraigned last Friday in a courtroom packed with supporting police officers. Trial was set for July 27. His indictment -- and the Thomas shooting -- have divided the city, if not along racial lines, then at least into two distinct camps: those who would justify the killing and thus make the U.S. the only industrial democracy to have a de facto death penalty for car theft; and those who believe police should adhere to the criteria established for the use of deadly force.

Those in the former group have their villains: Myra Green and her husband Dennis. They are "bad" parents. They allowed a 14-year-old to run the streets at 1 a.m., stealing cars. Had he been at home where he belonged, he'd be alive today.

If a Sophistry Hall of Fame is ever established, that line of reasoning will be its first entry. But assuming it's valid, let's extend it a bit. If Officer Gorwell had followed the procedure for the use of deadly force, Simmont Thomas would be alive today.

Whether the officer followed that procedure depends on whom you believe. Officer Gorwell contends he heard a shot and returned fire in self-defense. The gun that fired the shot has yet to be found. No bullet was found. No witnesses were produced who heard a shot other than the officer's. The three youths with Thomas heard no other shot. What they did hear, according to their testimony, was Officer Gorwell's shout for them to "Stop, you black -------------!"

I've heard the final word of the command many times. (Oedipus might also have heard it.) It conveys a certain animus, one that might indicate Officer Gorwell was predisposed to use deadly force no matter the circumstances.

A jury will decide who's telling the truth. The boys may have lied. Officer Gorwell, aware of the increasing violence on the street and remembering two city officers shot in September, may have panicked and thought he heard a shot.

But no one's going to convince the Greens of that. They believe their son was the victim of a summary execution on April 17. Any benefit of the doubt they may have given Officer Gorwell and his department vanished in the wake of what happened after Mrs. Green talked to Tyrell.

"We called the Western District police station twice," she said. "Both times we were told Simmont had been booked and sent to the Hickey School [for juvenile delinquents]." Those were the first and second of at least three deliberate lies the Greens say they were told. Simmont Thomas couldn't have been booked and sent to Hickey. Police had no one to book. Simmont lay dead in the city morgue.

"We were about to drive out to Hickey, when something in the back of my mind told me, 'Call the morgue,'" Myra Green recalled. The call confirmed that there was a teen-age, black male John Doe there. [Simmont carried no identification.] Three detectives were dispatched to the Green home. Two of them told Myra and Dennis Green that the black male John Doe had been killed in a gunfight with police in which several shots on both sides were exchanged.

They had a picture of the deceased, which they refused to show to the Greens so that they could finally end their anxiety.

"The only way we were able to see that it was our son in the morgue," Dennis Green said, "was when I was able to snatch the picture from the detective and look at it. I said to my wife, 'Myra, they've killed our son.'"

The Baltimore Police Department is a good one. But it wins no awards for the way it handled the Simmont Thomas case. It's one the department blew from the start. If there are any exceptions, it would be the third detective who went to the Green home, pulled Dennis Green aside and told him there had been no gunfight, that only one shot had been fired -- from the gun of Officer Gorwell -- and that witnesses said they had heard but one shot.

Those officers who lied and tried to cover up what actually happened the morning of April 17 did their profession a disservice.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.

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