New evidence preempts officer's trial

Test shows teen may have fired gun at him

February 13, 1999|By Marcia Myers and Kate Shatzkin | Marcia Myers and Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

The piece of new evidence that suddenly wiped away a manslaughter indictment against Baltimore City police Officer Edward Gorwell II on Thursday has turned the six-year-old case into a mystery that might never be solved.

The evidence -- a new gunshot residue test indicating that the supposedly unarmed 14-year-old boy killed by Gorwell's bullet might have fired at the officer after all -- caused prosecutors to drop charges minutes before the start of a second trial. But many questions remain.

Did Simmont Donta Thomas, known as Sam, fire on the officer as he and four other teens fled from a stolen Chrysler New Yorker at the wooded edge of Gwynns Falls Park on April 17, 1993, as Gorwell had always claimed?

If so, where is the gun?

Could one of the other teens with him that night have picked it up?

How conclusive is the new, more sophisticated police lab test that on Wednesday night revealed previously invisible gunshot residue swabbed from Thomas' left hand six years ago?

And if a gun was fired at Gorwell that night, was he justified in firing back?

Prosecutors had no answers yesterday as they waited for yet another round of test results from an independent laboratory -- findings that could take days.

Gorwell was not prepared to declare victory. Once before the charges against him had been erased by a mistrial, only to be reinstated.

"I've always known I did nothing wrong," he said during an interview in his lawyer's downtown Baltimore office.

However remote, the chance that prosecutors will charge him again persists.

"The fear exists," Gorwell said. "I don't want to get myself to believe this won't happen again and then have it happen."

His lawyer, Henry Belsky, was more jubilant. "We had divine intervention as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Belsky said that what apparently caused police to run a new test for gunshot residue was his own insistence early this week that the police laboratory technician appear in person to testify at Gorwell's retrial.

Prosecutors wanted to admit technician Daniel Van Gelder's testimony from the first trial. But Belsky made it clear he wanted Van Gelder to appear in person. At that point, Van Gelder apparently reviewed the evidence file and realized that the swabs taken of Thomas' hands had not been tested using more sophisticated equipment obtained four years after the first trial, said Belsky.

Efforts to reach Van Gelder yesterday were unsuccessful.

But others said that a critical fact has not yet been publicly revealed -- the amount of gunshot residue found on Thomas' hand.

"If they find a lot of particles, it's difficult to say it came from something other than a gun," said Mark Germani, lab director of Micromaterials Research Co., near Chicago. "If they find a few particles, there are lots of scenarios you can come up with to explain that."

If a person does not wash his hands, the residue can last several hours to a day, he said.

Small amounts of residue also might show up on someone who merely handled an object that had been in the hands of someone who recently fired a weapon, according to one laboratory engineer.

On the night of the shooting, Gorwell said in an interview yesterday, he followed the stolen Chrysler to the edge of Gwynns Falls Park. When the boys jumped out and ran, Gorwell chased them.

"I yelled at them to stop," he said. "Then I heard a gunshot. I saw the suspect on the hill and fired and kept going. I never stopped running."

At Gorwell's first trial, Charles J. "Joe" Key Sr. -- formerly a lieutenant in charge of the Baltimore police firing range and one of the state's foremost experts on weapons, tactics and the use of deadly force -- said that police are taught not to fire back that way.

"It is the policy, it is the training that the officer must be able to clearly identify his target before he shoots," Key testified.

Timothy J. Doory, then the prosecutor, asked: "What is the policy, if you don't have a target?"

Said Key: "Don't fire."

Despite an extensive search, police did not find a weapon.

Belsky said yesterday he believed that after an exchange of gunfire between Thomas and Gorwell, one of the other boys fleeing from the stolen car had picked up the weapon and fled with it.

The four young men with Thomas that night testified in Baltimore Circuit Court in 1993 that they had no weapons.

Quentin Montague, then 17, testified that two of the boys had been at his house before the group gathered to steal a car. "I knew they didn't have guns on them because they was with me for an hour or two before we left," he said.

He said that Thomas had a gun, but didn't bring it that night. Another of the youths testified that he had been with Thomas all day and knew he had no weapon.

Among the evidence Belsky planned to present at the upcoming trial, however, was a report filed with police in January 1997 by a relative of one of the teens.

The man, whom Belsky did not identify, claimed to have information that one of the boys had picked up a gun Thomas was carrying and kept it. Prosecutors later said the report was not credible.

For their part, some in the Police Department are pleased that new evidence has surfaced.

Col. John E. Gavrilis, chief of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, said: "It speaks of the good credit of the lab technician, who on his own initiative knew of a test that is more accurate and more up-to-date."

As soon as the technician realized there was a positive hit, he said, prosecutors were notified.

"In all our cases, we look for the facts," Gavrilis said. "The evidence always speaks for itself."

Staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/13/99

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