Officer acted recklessly, experts testify Prosecution rests case in driver's death

Pagotto expected to take stand

December 10, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A city prosecutor rested his manslaughter case against Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto yesterday, with two police experts calling the sergeant's actions the night he shot a Baltimore man to death both dangerous and reckless.

On trial, too, are Baltimore police procedures and Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier's initiative to get guns off the street, which may have caused Pagotto to be overly aggressive as he approached a white Subaru on Feb. 7.

Its driver, Preston Barnes, was killed by a bullet from Pagotto's gun, in a shooting the 15-year officer says was accidental.

With Pagotto's fiancee and Barnes' mother in the courtroom, police experts called yesterday by prosecutor Lawrence Doan put the cause squarely on Pagotto's shoulders. They said the sergeant violated so many aspects of training that even if everything happened the way he claimed, the shooting was still his fault. The witnesses would not agree with the main theme of Pagotto's defense -- that Barnes, an ex-convict allegedly on a drug-selling mission, caused his own demise by trying to flee. Nor would they give much credence to defense attorney Henry L. Belsky's questioning about "tunnel vision" and "adrenalin dump" -- reactions to extreme stress that he implied might have explained his client's actions.

Pagotto said in a statement that he and his partner stopped the car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. because of a missing rear tag.

Pagotto, who says he suspected the car was stolen and that its three occupants might be armed, approached the car with his Glock 9 mm drawn, telling the occupants to show their hands and get out of the car, according to his statement. The car door opened, and Pagotto reached in with his left hand in a "control tactic" to grab Barnes while brandishing the gun in this right. At that point, the car began to move rapidly, Pagotto fell from it, and his gun fired once, striking Barnes in the left armpit, his statement said.

Pagotto's being on anti-gun patrol did not relieve him of the duty to conform with police procedure, according to expert testimony.

State police 1st Sgt. Timothy P. Vittetoe and John L. Michaeljohn, a former Montgomery County police captain, testified that Pagotto should not have approached the car with his weapon drawn. Instead, they said, he should have taken cover, trained the gun on the Subaru, continued to issue commands and called for backup if necessary. If the car drove away, they said, policies required that Pagotto drive after it at normal speeds, letting the occupants get away if necessary, rather than reach inside the car.

"We do not catch everyone who does something wrong," Michaeljohn said. "It's better to do that than create a highly dangerous situation."

Pagotto's actions went "beyond modern police standards," Vittetoe said. "Nothing I know of teaches having a gun in one hand while controlling with the other."

Belsky tried to show that city police policies were out of step with the rest of the state and with common sense.

Pagotto is expected to take the witness stand when the defense case begins today.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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