Sentencing tomorrow in motorist's death Prosecutor recommends police sergeant get 3-8 years in prison

February 26, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Before he sentences police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto tomorrow for involuntary manslaughter in the death of a motorist, Baltimore Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes will have to make a tough decision: Should he give prison time to an oft-praised police officer with no record of being dangerous? Or can he grant probation to someone whose negligence on the job caused a man to die?

New territory

The territory is new, at least in Baltimore: Pagotto's conviction Dec. 17 was the first for a shooting in the line of duty that city police veterans can remember. Police officers will be watching, saying the result will affect how many risks they take to stop criminals on the streets of Baltimore. And the community where Preston E. Barnes lived and died by Pagotto's gun will be watching, too.

In court papers submitted to the judge yesterday, prosecutor Lawrence Doan requested that Pagotto, 40, serve from three to eight years in prison for the crime, within the range of Maryland's voluntary sentencing guidelines. Defense lawyers Henry L. Belsky and Kimberly A. Kelly are seeking probation before judgment, writing that "we believe it is undisputed that Sergeant Pagotto's only motivation on the evening of the incident was to do a good job."

They also have asked Byrnes to grant their client a new trial, but such motions are rarely successful.

Pagotto was convicted in the Feb. 7, 1996, shooting of Barnes, 22, during a car stop in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. When Barnes, who Pagotto's lawyer said was on a drug-selling mission with two passengers in the car, did not respond to the officers' commands to get out, Pagotto reached into the open car door and grabbed Barnes with his left hand, wielding his Glock 9 mm pistol in his right. Pagotto testified that the car began to accelerate, he fell from it and his gun fired, hitting Barnes in the left armpit and killing him.

Jurors found Pagotto guilty of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of reckless endangerment. Several police experts and supervisors testified for the prosecution that Pagotto acted dangerously in approaching the car with his gun in hand and holding his finger along the slide of the Glock. They said he should have retreated to his car and continued to issue commands with the gun trained on Barnes' Subaru.

Other case used as example

Doan asked that Byrnes look to the case of Montgomery County police Officer Christopher J. Albrecht, who received a one-year sentence for killing a 20-year-old woman with a shotgun while she stood near a man who was being sought in a stabbing. Doan called the facts of that case "very similar but arguably less egregious than those present here."

Belsky and Kelly countered by submitting Pagotto's long personnel file, filled with accolades from his supervisors and people he helped in the community, to try to tip the balance in Pagotto's favor. Numerous residents wrote to police commissioners during Pagotto's 16 years on the force, commending him for acts ranging from fixing flat tires and locating missing people to capturing dangerous drug dealers and solving homicides. He received four official commendations, including one for saving the life of a drowning 2-month old girl. His evaluations rated him "excellent," with supervisors praising his leadership, though several times he was reprimanded for unsatisfactory job performance.

Suspension without pay

Pagotto, who is suspended from the police force without pay, is driving a truck for Carroll Independent Fuel Co., according to his attorneys. He married his fiancee, Tommie Bockner, on Valentine's Day. Together they have six children. Belsky wrote that the family would be forced "to turn to public assistance for financial support" if Pagotto was incarcerated.

And, the defense attorneys wrote, Pagotto will no longer be able to work as a police officer, and poses no risk to the community. "He will not be in a position to make judgment calls that involve life and death situations as a regular part of his employment."

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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