Procedural lapses led to man's death, 2 say Witnesses testify in suit filed by family of suspect who was slain by officer

September 28, 1995|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Raleigh D. Lemon Jr. should not be dead.

So say two witnesses who testified yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court, where the family of Mr. Lemon is suing a city police officer for shooting the 32-year-old construction worker and father of three in the back and killing him.

The witnesses were a former Washington police chief testifying as a paid expert for the plaintiffs and a security guard who saw Officer Darlene Early pull the trigger.

The former chief said lax policies and lapses in judgment by Baltimore police commanders created a situation that was ripe for disaster long before the fatal shot was fired. And the security guard said he was alarmed when Mr. Lemon -- a prisoner who had been brought to a hospital for treatment -- was left unshackled in the emergency room by Officer Early.

As a result, the 22-year-old rookie, 8 months out of the police academy, was left with a terrible choice when Mr. Lemon bolted from custody on Jan. 13, 1993.

"It's unfortunate, because it was circumstances not of her making," said former police chief Jerry Wilson in an interview outside the courtroom.

The department and then-commissioner Edward V. Woods were originally named as co-defendants, but were dismissed when a judge ruled they are immune as state officials. And none of the police supervisors involved were disciplined because the department ruled that the shooting was justified, said police spokesman Sam Ringgold.

Back in the courtroom, the day's testimony ended with Officer Early taking the stand.

The mother of two said she reported to the Western District station about 4 p.m. that day, expecting to spend the night riding with a veteran officer and learning the ropes -- only to be told to escort an injured prisoner to Bon Secours Hospital.

Mr. Lemon had been arrested an hour earlier as a burglary suspect and beaten by police who said he resisted arrest.

But no one told Officer Early about the incident or what the charges were against Mr. Lemon, she testified.

At the hospital, she said, a nurse asked her to remove Mr. Lemon's handcuffs for a blood pressure test. He had been cooperative, Officer Early testified, so she did so.

Down the hallway, security guard Robert M. Shields Jr., 32, viewed the situation differently: "I was surprised he wasn't in leg irons," he testified, because officers usually shackled prisoners before taking off the handcuffs.

"That got my attention right away," he said later in an interview. "He wouldn't have been able to go anywhere if he had the leg irons on."

The Baltimore Police General Order Manual leaves it up to officers whether to use leg irons. Police said the policy remains unchanged -- despite several escape attempts in area hospitals in recent years.

Unfettered, Mr. Lemon rose from his chair after his examination and shoved Officer Early -- then ran down a 92-foot hallway, through two automatic doors and out onto Fayette Street with the rookie in hot pursuit.

Suddenly, Mr. Lemon stopped, spun to his right and raised his arm, the officer testified.

"I can't recall when I drew my weapon," said Officer Early. "I had VTC my weapon up and his hand came right towards it. I ducked and the gun discharged. I don't have a recollection of actually pulling the trigger."

But, she added, she "honestly believed he was going to take my weapon and use it on me. I had a split second to decide."

Former police chief Wilson testified that an officer may use deadly force only to prevent someone from causing death or serious injury to another, or to stop a violent felon from escaping.

Anything else is negligence or worse.

"In this case, she had no idea what the suspect had been charged with," he testified, and Mr. Lemon had not threatened anyone up to the moment the gun went off. "It is not clear whether she fired the weapon accidentally," he said.

Afterward, in an interview, Mr. Wilson said compound lapses in Baltimore Police Department procedure were partly to blame.

In not requiring leg irons and leaving a rookie alone to handle a prisoner charged with violently resisting arrest, police supervisors flirted with disaster.

"That should not happen in a well-organized police department," he said.

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