Despite acquittal, police blamed Jurors say old rules caused fatal shooting of prisoner in 1993

October 03, 1995|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

A Circuit Court jury exonerated a rookie police officer in the 1993 fatal shooting of a fleeing prisoner yesterday. But the jurors said that the Baltimore Police Department bears much of the responsibility for the death of Ralnd lapses in judgment by police supervisors set in motion a chain of events that ended in tragedy for Mr. Lemon and Officer Darlene Early.

"She was really a victim of circumstances beyond her control," said Doris Matthews, one of the six jurors who acquitted the officer in a $4 million wrongful death suit brought by the dead man's family. "She was placed in an impossible situation by her superiors and she did the best she could under the circumstances.

"The thing I want to hear somebody ask the Police Department is: What were you thinking!?"

But in the courtroom, the 24-year-old rookie officer and mother of two was on her own. The department and then-Commissioner Edward V. Woods were dismissed from the suit last year on grounds that they have immunity as state officials. None of Officer Early's superiors were ever disciplined and policies implicated in the shooting have not been changed, police said.

Officer Early had just graduated from the police academy eight months before she walked into Western District station for her evening shift Jan. 13, 1993, and was told to take a prisoner to Bon Secours Hospital.

Mr. Lemon -- a 32-year-old burglary suspect charged with resisting arrest in a fight with three veteran officers an hour before -- had at least three assault and battery arrests in the past and was a known drug user.

But no one told the rookie. Nor did anyone warn her to take any special precautions, even though the department's manual calls for suspects who are known "police fighters" to be shackled at the ankles and escorted by more than one officer.

"All I knew was that he apparently needed medical treatment," Ms. Early testified last week.

Mr. Lemon, who was high on cocaine and heroin at the time, cooperated with Officer Early as she led him into the emergency room, so she didn't place leg irons on him when she took off his handcuffs for a nurse to treat him.

The police manual does not require officers to use leg irons.

Suddenly, Mr. Lemon shoved the officer and bolted out onto Fayette Street. Chasing him, Officer Early ignored the can of nonlethal pepper Mace hanging from her belt and drew her 9 mm pistol instead.

One month later, in reaction to a rash of police deaths and the shooting of a dozen unarmed suspects, the department issued a policy advising officers to draw both weapons to give them "a safer option than suffering or inflicting serious injury" with their guns.

But when Mr. Lemon stopped outside the hospital and began turning toward Officer Early, she had only her gun in her hand. She ducked, then fired, hitting him in the back and killing him.

The department exonerated the officer on grounds that residue blown out of her gun was found on Mr. Lemon's hand, confirming her story that she shot point-blank in self-defense when he reached back for her weapon.

But a battery of experts who testified in the civil trial said the residue was so minute that it was inconclusive. And they faulted police for never testing Officer Early's gun to see how far the residue would travel.

"That test is as basic as taking the footprint on a newborn baby," said Dr. Richard Saferstein, formerly the chief forensic scientist for the New Jersey State Police. "It's remarkable that this department doesn't routinely do that test in these cases. At best, they made an educated guess about how far away she was when she fired."

Dwayne Brown, an attorney for Mr. Lemon's family, argued Friday that Officer Early "gunned him down in cold blood" to save herself from being disciplined for the escape. But the jury didn't buy it.

"I give her a lot more credit for intelligence than to shoot somebody in the back to keep from getting in trouble," said Kathy Murphy, 37, a legal secretary.

Jurors said the gunshot residue evidence -- considered crucial by the police and plaintiffs alike -- was so muddled that it played little part in their deliberations.

"All the witnesses said he was close enough to hurt her when she shot him," said mechanic Steve Xikouloutakis, 49. "He posed a threat to her."

Unaware that the Police Department had been dismissed from the suit, the jurors wanted to know why. Mrs. Matthews said that throughout the trial Officer Early's supervisors were invisible defendants.

Moments later, Mrs. Matthews hugged Ms. Early outside the courtroom. "You're going to be a good police officer some day," she said. "You just be careful out there. All kinds of things can happen." "I will, ma'am," Officer Early said. "I'm careful every day."

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