Officer to defend fatal shooting Unarmed suspect was shot in back during chase in 1993

September 27, 1995|By JIM HANER | JIM HANER,SUN STAFF

In an incident that raised alarms among some commanders in the Baltimore Police Department, a rookie officer who shot an unarmed suspect in the back and killed him in 1993 went on trial yesterday to defend herself against a lawsuit charging her with wrongful death.

In opening arguments in Baltimore Circuit Court, attorneys for the family of Raleigh D. Lemon Jr. claimed that their client's death was the result of a "cold-blooded" shooting by Officer Darlene Early and asked that the jury award damages.

"There's no dispute that he wasn't armed," attorney Charles G. Byrd Jr. told the jury. "He didn't have a knife, a stick, anything. And she shot him in the back. I want you to think about that."

The officer, who was exonerated by the Police Department, denied the allegations in a brief statement from the witness stand. Her attorney told the jury he would prove that his client fired in self-defense after Mr. Lemon spun around while the officer was chasing him and tried to grab her gun.

Officer Early was a 22-year-old, slightly built rookie eight months out of the police academy when she climbed into a police wagon the evening of Jan. 13, 1993, to escort a prisoner to Bon Secours Hospital for treatment.

Mr. Lemon, 32, a construction worker and father of three with a minor criminal record, sat quietly in the back of the van. A burglary suspect, he was taken into custody less than an hour earlier and beaten by police who said he resisted arrest.

Officer Early was not involved in the arrest and had no idea what the charges were against him. She would later describe her prisoner as cooperative, almost cordial. But a few minutes later, he broke free of her in the hospital and, after a brief chase, she shot him on the street outside.

The Police Department ruled that it was reasonable under the circumstances for her to shoot her 9mm pistol almost point-blank into Lemon's back because there was evidence that he was spinning around and reaching for the gun when she pulled the trigger.

The department and then-Commissioner Edward V. Woods were named as co-defendants in the suit, but were later dismissed on grounds that they have immunity as state officials, court records show.

But the shooting was emblematic of larger problems in the department at the time, records show. Not the least of the questions raised by the case was why a rookie officer had been left alone to guard a prisoner who supposedly had resisted arrest by at least three veteran police officers an hour earlier.

The killing of Raleigh Lemon also took place during one of the deadliest periods in history on the streets of Baltimore. It was a time when city police were shooting unarmed suspects at a record rate -- at least 18 were killed or injured from 1991 to 1993 -- in a sharp increase in the use of deadly force.

For years, the department had been logging slightly more than a dozen shootings by its officers annually. And they almost always involved armed opponents. Then, in 1991, the number of suspects killed and injured began to rise. By 1992, 31 people had been shot. Another 29 were hit the year Officer Early shot Raleigh Lemon.

The official response by police commanders was that the streets were becoming more dangerous and suspects were becoming better armed.

But in memos and reports from the department's internal investigation division, some administrators were warning that the increase was at least partly attributable to the fact the department was absorbing one of the biggest surges in rookie officers in its history and veterans were retiring in record numbers. The trend continues today.

By 1997, nearly three out of four Baltimore police officers will have less than five years' experience, the department estimates. Among other indications of the impact of novice police officers is the record rate they have been wrecking police cars.

Records show that they also account for about half the uses of deadly force.

Faced with such evidence, Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier began to clamp down on the use of force by his officers as soon as he arrived in 1994. And the number of shootings fell almost overnight -- with no increase in injuries to officers.

Tougher rules on when officers can pull the trigger, a liberal policy on the use of nonlethal pepper Mace and a new requirement of mandatory disciplinary action for clumsy police officers who shoot accidentally cut the number of deaths and injuries to civilians in half by this year.

To date, about 15 suspects have been shot in 1995 -- a number roughly equivalent to the department's level in 1989 before rookies began to flood the streets.

But Jan. 13, 1993, neither Officer Early nor Mr. Lemon had the benefit of the new rules and tougher standards.

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