City prosecutor focuses on gun in officer's manslaughter trial Police sergeant is charged in fatal shooting of man during a traffic stop

November 26, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

As the trial of Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen Pagotto in the fatal shooting of a suspect began yesterday in Circuit Court, an inanimate object emerged as the focus: the 15-year officer's gun.

Wielding the 9 mm Glock semiautomatic handgun -- its firing mechanism disabled -- prosecutor Lawrence Doan acted out for the jury what Pagotto said he had done that night, holding the gun in his right hand while reaching with his left into the driver's side of the car with Preston Barnes at the wheel. Pagotto is charged with manslaughter.

He and his partner stopped Barnes' car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. the night of Feb. 7 because it had no rear license plate. But the stop turned into a deadly confrontation, with Barnes fatally shot by a bullet from Pagotto's gun.

In a statement given three weeks after the incident and previewed in court yesterday, Pagotto said the shooting was accidental, occurring when Barnes accelerated the car, causing the officer to fall away from it. Pagotto said his gun hand hit the car as he fell and the gun went off. The bullet hit Barnes in the left armpit.

Doan told jurors that even if they believe Pagotto's statement, they should still convict the officer of manslaughter because of the way he handled his gun that night. But Doan said the gun as manufactured should not have gone off unless a round was in the chamber and Pagotto's finger was on the trigger. He said witnesses would testify that Pagotto reached into the car while it was moving away, violating Police Department policies.

"Gasoline to a fire," Doan said, prompting an objection from Pagotto's lawyer, Henry Belsky. "Grabbing Preston Barnes with a gun in his hand is gross negligence."

But Belsky countered that Barnes -- who he said was on a drug-selling mission with 10 sandwich bags of "ready rock" cocaine -- was responsible for his own demise "because he chose to attempt to escape lawful detention by a Baltimore police officer."

Barnes and two men in the car, both expected to testify, had a plan to escape if stopped by police, Belsky said. On five years of probation for a drug charge, Barnes was aware he could go back to prison if caught with his stash, the lawyer said.

Pagotto's real goal that night was to get guns off the street, as part of a new squad put together by Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, Belsky said. That squad, he said, had been trained "to aggressively confront criminals to see if they had guns and to take them off them." The neighborhood, the young men moving about in the car and the missing license tag fueled suspicion. "His orders were, when you see a situation like that, get up to that car and take a look in."

As the lawyers made their opening statements, Barnes' mother, Sylvia Smith, wept. Her sister, Margaret Nelson, took the witness stand to describe lending her car to her nephew that night. When she was called to Kirk Avenue, she said, she found Barnes "laying in the street."

Pagotto has been suspended without pay pending the outcome of the trial.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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