Panel clears city officers of brutality

August 25, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writers Elaine Tassy and Michael James contributed to this article.

A Baltimore grand jury needed only a few minutes of deliberations yesterday to dismiss allegations that city police officers beat Jesse Chapman Jr. to death during an arrest last month on a West Baltimore street.

Although Mr. Chapman's death in custody had sparked several protests against police brutality, the grand jury was told that cocaine killed the man. The panel's decision not to criminally indict any police officers came after four days of testimony and ended local prosecutors' investigation into the incident.

In announcing the panel's actions, Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms said Mr. Chapman died from "cocaine intoxication complicated by asthma," adding that the full autopsy report will be released this morning. Mr. Simms has for weeks refused to make the report public, arguing that it is part of the investigation. Previously, police said only that Mr. Chapman did not die from blunt force trauma.

Although FBI and internal police probes of the death remain open -- and Mr. Chapman's relatives and some residents of the Sandtown-Winchester community remain enraged -- the city grand jury's action yesterday marked a significant stage in an urban parable of a neighborhood's mistrust of the police.

The grand jury focused on the events of July 2, when Mr. Chapman's girlfriend went to the Western District station house to complain that he had beaten her. Mr. Chapman reportedly tried to attack the woman in the police station, then led police on a chase that ended in a brief struggle and his arrest a block away. He was pronounced dead after officers found him unconscious in the back of a police patrol wagon.

After prosecutors refused to release the autopsy report to the dead man's family, a funeral home employee drew a crude sketch depicting injuries on Mr. Chapman's head. One area resident maintains that he has a videotape of the arrest, but he has refused to show it to investigators or to the news media. And, in an extraordinary move, prosecutors traveled to West Baltimore to meet with witnesses who refused to come downtown to be interviewed as part of the investigation.

In the 1100 block of N. Fulton St., where Mr. Chapman was arrested, about a dozen angry residents were on their front steps and pacing the street yesterday afternoon, complaining about the grand jury's decision. Two men yelled to each other from opposite ends of the street, with one saying, "Did you hear? Them cops got off."

Tony Lane, 50, said: "I'm not surprised. This is Baltimore. The cops are the biggest gang in this city.

"The cops are above the law, and the grand jury just proved it."

Joseph Whynder, 76, who testified before the grand jury that he saw Mr. Chapman "beaten like a dog," sat in front of his home and shook his head in disbelief.

"I told the grand jury," he said, "and they didn't even listen.

Mr. Chapman's mother, Judith Weston, 48, who lives in Northeast Baltimore and did not witness the incident, said Mr. Simms telephoned her about 4 p.m. and told her there would be no indictments.

"I'm sorry, not just for myself, but for the world, if this is the world we live in. I feel like it's a sick world," she said. "I think the autopsy report must have been the nail in the coffin."

Mr. Chapman's relatives notified the city last month that they plan to file a lawsuit alleging police brutality. The family's lawyer, Roland Walker, said he was surprised that no indictments were issued, adding that he may seek an independent review on the cause of Mr. Chapman's death.

Henry L. Belsky, a city Fraternal Order of Police lawyer, said last night that he had talked with all 12 officers involved in the arrest. He said some were upset with what they perceived as a lack of support from police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier and questioned why their actions are being scrutinized given the autopsy report. Five of the officers were assigned to desk duty.

About 3 p.m. yesterday, Assistant State's Attorney Donald J. Giblin, the deputy chief medical examiner and a detective emerged from the grand jury room. Within five minutes, the racially mixed panel of grand jurors filed out of the courthouse. One member, a white man, paused to say to a small gathering of reporters, "Nothing" -- apparently referring to the panel's decision not to indict the officers.

Mr. Giblin later said he presented evidence to the grand jury but did not make a recommendation on whether indictments should be issued. "They were asked whether they found probable cause to indict any officers for any criminal act."

Mr. Belsky said, "This is a case that should not have been presented to the grand jury."

Noting that prosecutors in other jurisdictions also routinely allow grand juries to determine the merit of brutality allegations, he nonetheless said: "I think [Mr. Simms] does it in a sense to appease the community so that they feel there is an independent tribunal that reviews these cases."

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