Appellate case may alter rules on deadly force

May 16, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

Did the police officer commit manslaughter when he shot 20-year-old Rebecca Garnett with a shotgun near a playground filled with children? Or was it a justifiable accident made in a split-second when the officer thought his life was in danger?

The Maryland Court of Appeals' eventual ruling on the 1991 incident could tighten limits on the use of deadly force by police throughout the state, said the officer's attorney, Byron L. Warnken, who argued the case last week before the state's highest court.

The court was hearing the case of former Montgomery County Officer Christopher J. Albrecht, 28, who accidentally fatally wounded Ms. Garnett with a shotgun while she stood near a man who was being sought in a stabbing. Mr. Albrecht was fired in connection with the incident.

Mr. Albrecht was convicted of manslaughter in March 1992 and served his one-year sentence in a minimum-security prison before a state appeals court overturned the verdict last October. The court ruled that Mr. Albrecht did not deviate from standard police conduct by drawing the shotgun.

Attorneys for the state asked the Court of Appeals to reinstate the manslaughter verdict.

But Mr. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, said that by reinstating the manslaughter verdict the Court of Appeals could limit the circumstances in which a "reasonable" police officer can use a shotgun in Maryland.

The incident occurred on May 23, 1991, when Mr. Albrecht approached Ms. Garnett in the parking lot of a Gaithersburg apartment complex, as she stood outside a car occupied by two men, one of whom was being sought in a stabbing.

She was unarmed and was eating corn chips when the officer pulled out his shotgun and aimed it at her. The weapon accidentally discharged, striking her in chest and killing her instantly.

Mary Ellen Barbera, a lawyer for the state, declined to say whether the Court of Appeals would establish new policy with its decision. But she said the officer's decision to use a shotgun violated excessive-force standards.

Ms. Barbera, the Maryland Attorney General's deputy chief of criminal appeals, told the panel that the officer should not have used such a powerful weapon in that situation because Ms. Garnett was unarmed. She said a shotgun blast also endangered the lives of 25 to 30 children at a nearby playground.

She noted that former Montgomery Circuit Judge Peter J. Messitte, who convicted Mr. Albrecht in a nonjury trial, had found that the officer was not in imminent danger and had no reason to use the shotgun. She said the man sought in the stabbing "was not the most fearsome of felons."

"A shotgun is to be used in only the most extreme situation, only when pursuing the most extreme criminal," she said.

Judge Howard S. Chasanow and Judge John C. Eldridge repeatedly asked Mr. Warnken to explain how an officer could be justified in pointing a shotgun at an innocent, unarmed woman when children were playing nearby.

Mr. Warnken said the officer was required to draw a gun because someone was inside the car, he was in a dangerous area.

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