Jury picked for officer's shooting trial

July 28, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

After three months of protests, press conferences and petitions, the debate surrounding the death of 14-year-old Simmont Donta Thomas moved into a Baltimore courtroom yesterday, where a jury was assigned the job of deciding why Officer Edward T. Gorwell II shot the suspected car thief.

"In the answer to that question," prosecutor Timothy J. Doory told the jury, "you will find the eventual verdict."

Henry L. Belsky, the attorney representing Officer Gorwell, agreed on that point, but disputed another.

Mr. Doory said the officer violated department policy by firing a warning shot that inadvertently struck and killed the youth -- and is guilty of manslaughter.

Mr. Belsky countered that his client was within his rights because he was defending himself in a dangerous part of town by returning what he thought was gunfire.

"He did what any smart police officer would do under the circumstances. He chose to live," Mr. Belsky said. "He fired one shot and took cover. He didn't intend to shoot anybody."

As Officer Gorwell entered the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse yesterday, he was met by protesters, just as he was when he showed up for his arraignment two months ago. Demonstrator Truxon Sykes held a sign reading "Justice for my brother" as he shadowed the officer.

The protesters, who have submitted petitions calling for the officer to be charged with murder and not manslaughter, handed out fliers that called Officer Gorwell "the killer cop" who "served as Simmont Thomas' judge, jury and executioner." The fliers also talk of an "attempted cover-up" stemming from delays in informing the youth's family of his death.

Dennis Green, the slain youth's stepfather, said yesterday that he and other members of the Justice Committee for Simmont Thomas conducted a rally Saturday to send the message that residents must be careful when dealing with city police.

"It's a damn shame we have to be afraid of our own police department," Mr. Green said.

Simmont "Sam" Thomas was killed April 17, shot once in the back while fleeing from a stolen car in a densely wooded area at the edge of Gwynns Falls Park in West Baltimore. Witnesses have reported hearing only one shot; no gun was found on the slain youth or the others who fled the stolen car and were apprehended later.

Both Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms termed the shooting troubling and called for a grand jury investigation. After that investigation led to an indictment for manslaughter, Mr. Belsky called a news conference in which Officer Gorwell, 24, gave his version of events and maintained his innocence.

Yesterday's court hearing began with presiding Judge Ellen M. Heller denying a defense motion that the trial be moved from the city because of publicity surrounding the case. The judge then summoned 100 potential jurors to the courtroom, and by late in the afternoon a panel of four black women, two black men, two white women and four white men had been selected to hear the case.

Mr. Doory, the prosecutor, then told the jurors young Thomas was among five juveniles who stole a 1992 Chrysler New Yorker from the Mondawmin Mall area and led police on a chase. With Officer Gorwell in pursuit, the car crashed near the park, Mr. Doory said, adding that the Thomas youth and his friends fled toward the woods and were ordered to stop.

"Immediately after the command, 'Stop,' they heard a bang," Mr. Doory said. "A bullet ripped through [the Thomas youth's] back, destroyed one lung, ripped through his heart and destroyed the other lung."

Addressing the jury, Mr. Belsky pointedly referred to the Thomas youth as a "thief" and "alleged victim." Mr. Belsky criticized police for failing to immediately apprehend the other suspects and test them to see if they had fired any weapons.

"You only have their word that they didn't have a gun that night," the lawyer said.

Testimony in the trial is to begin this morning.

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