Evidence clears officer 6 years after teen's death

New test backs claim of Gorwell self-defense

February 12, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Six years after being indicted for manslaughter in the shooting death of an apparently unarmed teen-ager, and minutes before the start of his second trial, Baltimore police officer Edward T. Gorwell II was unexpectedly cleared yesterday when new evidence emerged in the case.

Surprised city prosecutors decided to drop the charges, but left open the possibility that Gorwell might be charged again.

Gorwell has always contended that he heard a gunshot and fired in self-defense when he killed 14-year-old Simmont Donta Thomas on April 17, 1993. The teen was fleeing with others from a stolen car in a wooded area at the edge of Gwynns Falls Park.

But no gun was found at the scene, and no evidence of gunshot residue was found on the teen's hands. Several witnesses said they had heard only one shot. Gorwell was indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the midst of jury selection, a prosecutor entered the courtroom and conferred briefly with all of the attorneys and Baltimore Circuit Judge John N. Prevas.

"Because of some late-breaking developments, the state has elected not to go forward with this case," the judge told a courtroom full of stunned observers. Later, the judge said, "This is the most Perry Mason-like thing I have seen in my 26 years in the courthouse."

A more sophisticated forensic test to detect the presence of gunshot residue on the hands of the victim was performed Wednesday night by a city police technician on his own initiative. The tests analyzed the results of residue collected on a swab of the victim's hands after he was killed. The swabs were kept as evidence.

The results showed the presence of gunpowder residue on the teen-ager's left hand, according to police. Thomas was left-handed, defense lawyers said.

The new test had not been requested by prosecutors, and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday that she would seek retesting by an independent laboratory.

"The only thing I can say is that we want to do everything we can to assure the family that the test results are the same in terms of the recent test and any re-analysis," Jessamy said.

She said the review over the next few days could include a look at other cases that might be affected. Typically, prosecutors do not retest gunshot residue evidence.

"We have had no reason to retest evidence," she said.

Sitting at the defense table, Gorwell showed no reaction to the news at first, then sighed deeply as the jurors, dismissed by the judge, began to file from the room.

"It means the case is dismissed -- you're free," attorney Henry Belsky said to the stone-faced officer.

A father's frustration

From the side of the courtroom where he had patiently watched jury selection for two days, Simmont Thomas' father, Dennis Green, waded through the departing crowd, threw his hands into the air and asked the prosecutor in a shaken voice, "What's going on?"

Relatives of crime victims routinely make statements at the end of a trial when there is a conviction, but with yesterday's extraordinary turn of events, the judge extended the courtesy to Green.

Pacing, his hands pressed together as in prayer, Green spoke to the court in a trembling voice.

"As things stand, it hurts -- it hurts a lot," he said. "My son's gone, my family went through hell."

He offered to pay to have more tests conducted. Then he turned to Gorwell.

"I don't hate you," he said. "But as long as I live I will know in my heart my son did not shoot at you. I will never give up trying to find some evidence."

Then he strode from the courtroom.

The surprise ending short-circuited one of the more controversial and racially tinged cases of deadly force in recent Baltimore police history. Gorwell is white. The teen, who was shot in the back, was black.

Yet when the case returned to court this week, it received a relatively quiet reception. Sign-carrying protesters who called for Gorwell to be charged with murder during the first trial were nowhere to be seen. And Green was the only relative of the dead teen in the courtroom.

`You're kidding'

The first indication that the day might take an unexpected turn occurred around 10: 30 a.m., when Assistant State's Attorney William McCollum arrived and initiated a whispered discussion with Gorwell's lawyers, Belsky and Kimberleigh Alley. Belsky's eyes widened, a hand went to his chest and he was overheard saying, "You're kidding."

McCollum then notified the judge's law clerk that it was "very important" that the group meet with the judge right away.

As the day unfolded, McCollum was frequently called out of the courtroom and handed notes. Whispered conversations became the norm. The attorneys, under a gag order by the judge, refused to reveal the substance of the discussions or even hint at what was happening.

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