Jury in fatal-crash lawsuit against Baltimore hears of an honest mistake, 'cowboy' officer

June 12, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Was Keith N. Devoe "more cowboy than police officer" when his cruiser slammed into Valerie Lynette Taylor's car, killing her as she returned from church in the first few hours of 1995? Or did he make what a city lawyer called an honest mistake, following a superior's directive to a tragic conclusion?

Those were the questions before a Baltimore Circuit Court jury yesterday, as they heard opening statements in a $5 million lawsuit against the city in Taylor's death.

Taylor, 18, was driving home from a midnight church service when her car was broadsided by Devoe's police car at Orleans and Caroline streets in East Baltimore. Her 12-year-old sister was injured in the collision.

A Police Department review of the accident found Devoe, then 21, at fault, but criminal charges never were filed against him. He remains on the force.

The department recently came under fire in the death of 7-year-old Melvin Antonio Bettis, who was killed when he ran into the intersection of Reisterstown Road and Virginia Avenue and was struck by a police car speeding to a burglary call. A departmental review later found that the child was the primary cause of the accident when he darted into the street, though it also concluded that the officer, Robert L. Velte Jr., failed "to exercise due care and caution."

Taylor's parents, Linwood R. and Lillian R. Taylor, watched intently yesterday as their attorney, Marvin Ellin, outlined their case against Devoe.

Ellin said Devoe was traveling 60 mph to an "emergency" that wasn't -- a call for a paddy wagon on nearby Valley Street. He said Devoe lied when he said a traffic light was green for him, when witnesses said it was green for Taylor.

But John W. Trotz, an assistant city solicitor, asked the jury not to magnify the tragedy of Taylor's death by assigning blame.

He said that on that New Year's Eve, Devoe's supervisor had directed all officers in his sector "to respond to everyone's call as an emergency call."

He pointed to the dangers that police face in the neighborhood, particularly on that night, to show Devoe's urgency in responding. "I think that blame is another tragedy," Trotz said. "I think, in this case, it's out of place."

A witness testified that she saw the cruiser approach the intersection at about 70 mph, with no sign of slowing. Taylor's car, she said, was going 25 to 30 mph and also did not slow down.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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