Pagotto given 3 years in shooting Fellow officers denounce his sentence in motorist's death

February 28, 1997|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Saying Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen Pagotto must be punished for the death of a motorist to assure the public and the police "that we continue to honor life's value," a city circuit judge ordered the veteran officer yesterday to serve three years in prison.

The sentence issued by Judge John Carroll Byrnes for involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the death of Preston E. Barnes was immediately condemned by current and retired police officers who had packed the courtroom, wearing blue ribbons in support of Pagotto, a 15-year member of the force.

Pagotto is the first city police officer in official memory to be convicted in a shooting in the line of duty. His sentence was triple the one given to Montgomery County Officer Christopher J. Albrecht, who in 1991 accidentally shot a 20-year-old woman with a shotgun while she stood near a man being sought in a stabbing.

The judge rejected the recommendations of a probation investigator and Pagotto's attorney, Henry L. Belsky, that the sergeant not serve any time. Prosecutor Lawrence Doan recommended a sentence of three to eight years in prison, within the range set by Maryland's nonbinding sentencing guidelines.

Pagotto was convicted Dec. 17 of shooting Barnes, 22, after stopping his car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. on Feb. 7, 1996.

The sergeant testified that Barnes, who Pagotto's lawyer said was on a drug-selling mission with two passengers in the car, did not respond to his commands to get out. Pagotto then reached into the open car door and grabbed Barnes with his left hand, holding his Glock 9-mm pistol in his right hand. Pagotto testified that as the car began to accelerate, he fell from it and his gun fired when it hit the car, striking Barnes in the left armpit and killing him.

Byrnes said he did not believe Pagotto meant to shoot that night, but he rejected the sergeant's account of what happened and said his violations of police procedures were egregious.

"There is little doubt, given the full circumstances and considering all of the evidence, that Sergeant Pagotto had the weapon pointed at the deceased and his finger was on the trigger while the decedent was cowering, attempting to shield himself with his raised arm," the judge said. He said he had concluded that the weapon went off when the car moved away.

"There is, in simple words, no excuse for the conduct of the defendant. His finger should not have been on the trigger at that place, at that time, under those circumstances. There was no split-second decision whether to shoot involved in this case."

Pagotto, 40, put his head in his hands. Behind him, his wife and several of his children cried.

Earlier in the day, Pagotto's neighbors, friends and family told the judge that he was a fine man with no bad intentions or propensity for violence. They described the hardships his family had already endured, including the death of his first wife, Rosean, of cancer.

Pagotto took the witness stand to ask the judge for mercy and to express remorse to the victim's mother.

"Ms. Sylvia Smith, I'm sorry," he said to her. "And [to] your family." Smith sobbed, putting her head on her husband's shoulder.

Outside the courthouse, Smith said, "I felt sorry for him, even though he killed my child. I can't keep on being bitter." Smith said she had not asked the judge for a particular sentence but had written that her son's death had left her "with scars that will never heal. Preston was special to me, and since his absence I feel that part of my heart has disappeared and this part can never be replaced."

Sumayya Nelson, a cousin of Barnes', said of Pagotto, "He's still got family to see. We've got to go see dirt."

The judge ordered that Pagotto remain free on $75,000 bail while he appeals the sentence, which could take a year. He recommended that the sergeant serve his time in a federal prison for his safety and that he be considered for parole "at the earliest lawful time." In Maryland, inmates must serve 25 percent of their prison time before being considered for parole.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said police officers around the city will be afraid of the result of doing their jobs.

"What I'm scared of is that a police officer is going to hesitate," McLhinney said. "They're going to hesitate, and they could be killed."

Belsky said, "It is a sad day in Baltimore for a Baltimore police officer to get a very severe sentence."

Pub Date: 2/28/97

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