Jury ruling favors police in suit brought by slain woman's sister

Mentally ill victim shot by officers who broke in

February 24, 1999|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury decided yesterday that city police acted appropriately when they broke into the North Baltimore home of a mentally ill woman and shot and killed her when she came at them brandishing a knife.

The jury deliberated two hours before deciding in favor of the officers in a wrongful death civil suit brought by the sister and executor of the estate of Betty Keat, a 63-year-old Homeland woman who was killed in the January 1996 encounter with police.

Neither the six officers on trial nor Keat's sister, Janet Beyer of Newport News, Va., displayed much visible reaction as the jury's verdict was read.

But the tensions of the case -- and the nearly two-week-long trial -- spilled out after the parties left Circuit Judge Thomas E. Noel's courtroom.

The officers -- who were not charged criminally because city prosecutors decided the shooting was justified -- said they were glad the ordeal of the 3-year-old case was over.

"I'm relieved," said Lt. Sandra M. Joyce, a Northern District shift commander and one of six officers named in the suit. "I think it was the right verdict. The officers did nothing wrong. They did their job. It's unfortunate it had to end up that way."

Officer Manuel Eldridge Jr., one of two officers who fired at Keat, said, "Explaining to my children what was going on -- that was the hardest thing." Asked what he would say to his children now, he said, "I don't know."

But Beyer, who was seeking millions of dollars in damages, did not hide her dismay at the jury's verdict -- or her bitterness at police.

"Needless to say, I'm very disappointed," she said. "To me, it seems that the police are above the law in this city."

Keat had a long history of manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia and had for months before her death refused medication or therapy. Her death highlighted the difficulties of providing care for seriously mentally ill patients outside institutions.

The case began when police responded to a 911 call from a neighbor in the 300 block of Taplow Road, who reported that Keat had thrown a Molotov cocktail on her lawn and had been walking the streets with a sickle.

After Keat failed to respond to repeated knocks on her front and back doors and on a first-floor window that she used to go in and out of her house, police broke a window and four officers entered her house, according to testimony.

Several minutes later, Eldridge and Officer Scott Dickson shot Keat as she advanced with a knife to within about five feet of Officer Phillip Lassahn after yelling, "There's no such thing as Baltimore police." Keat was struck by two bullets after a stream of pepper spray in the face failed to stop her advance.

In closing arguments yesterday, Anton J. S. Keating, the lawyer for Keat's estate, argued that police should not have broken into Keat's house and did not have to shoot her to subdue her. He suggested that Keat might have been unarmed and police might have planted the knife found near Keat's body in her living room.

That suggestion brought a sharp rejoinder from Robert C. Verderaime, the officers' lawyer, who said nothing in the evidence supported it. "It is simply an absurd, unsupportable conclusion to draw," he said.

Verderaime argued that the officers were justified in entering Keat's house to assess her condition and make sure she was not going to cause immediate harm to her neighbors or herself. He said the officers who shot Keat acted reasonably and according to their training because one of their colleagues was in immediate danger.

"They've done nothing wrong," he said.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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