'I knew somebody was firing at me,' officer testifies

July 31, 1993|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Officer Edward T. Gorwell II of the Western District was not in uniform when he crossed the carpeted courtroom and reached to his right hip, reached toward a holster that wasn't there. Hardly breaking stride, he drew an imaginary gun and fired an imaginary hollow-point bullet at the witness box that represented 14-year-old Simmont Donta Thomas.

This was Officer Gorwell's day to take the stand in his manslaughter trial and explain why he fatally shot a suspected car thief in the back. The prosecution had rested its case. Now the officer, 24, wearing a black suit and a red tie, was reliving and re-enacting the events of April 17.

That was the night he pursued a stolen 1992 Chrysler New Yorker down a curving road and to the edge of West Baltimore's Gwynns Falls Park. When five teen-agers bailed out of the car, he left his cruiser and took off on foot after them. Within seconds, two suspects veered left. Officer Gorwell said he ordered them to halt.

"Just after I yelled 'Stop! Police!' I heard a gunshot," the officer told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury. "I looked to my left. I saw, on the hill, a pair of light-colored pants, and I fired at them."

"Why did you fire at the light-colored pants?" asked his lawyer, Henry L. Belsky.

"That was where the shot came from," Officer Gorwell said. "It scared me. At that point I knew somebody was firing at me."

Officer Gorwell has maintained that he believed he was returning fire when he shot the Thomas youth in the back.

During the trial, prosecutors have sought to discredit that claim, reminding the jury that no gun was found on the slain youth or the other suspects who were arrested the following day.

Prosecutors have produced a tape of police radio transmissions showing Officer Gorwell did not broadcast a warning that shots had been fired. Other police officers testified that he gave them no such warning when they arrived to join the chase.

Also, prosecutors presented witnesses who said they heard only one shot. In response, Mr. Belsky presented to the jury yesterday the testimony of Richard Mosely Sr.

Mr. Mosely, who lives within blocks of the park, said he heard several shots fired in an unrelated incident about the same time as Officer Gorwell was chasing the suspects.

As the slain youth's mother watched with a look of disdain, Officer Gorwell testified he tried to radio a call of "discharging" -- police talk for shots fired -- in the minutes following the shooting.

Earlier in the trial, Mr. Belsky had suggested that one officer's radio transmissions can "override" another's and that a broadcast would not make the airwaves if the officer failed to wait through the two-second delay on his hand-held radio before talking.

When it was his turn to cross-examine the officer, prosecutor Timothy J. Doory shouted, "Stop! Police!" Then, in a normal speaking volume, he asked, "Did you expect anybody to stop?"

"You never know," Officer Gorwell answered.

The prosecutor, a veteran who heads the Violent Crimes Unit of the city state's attorney's office, paced through the courtroom during the cross-examination. He demanded to know whether the officer would have been frustrated had the suspects gotten away, and why he did not warn arriving officers that they were entering a "killing field."

Before the officer took the stand as the first defense witness, he enjoyed a victory when Judge Ellen M. Heller dismissed a voluntary manslaughter charge against him. The judge ruled that the trial would proceed, but that prosecutors could argue only that the officer was guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Officer Gorwell faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison if convicted.

The trial is to resume Monday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

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