Montgomery officials, lawyers for family of slain black man meet

Unarmed victim shot by white officer during traffic stop

May 05, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Lawyers for the family of a black man shot to death last month by a white Montgomery County police officer met yesterday with county officials -- including the insurance risk manager.

Johnnie Cochran, William H. Murphy Jr. and Walter Blair held a private meeting with County Council President Isiah Leggett, two weeks after Blair said they would be filing a "mega-lawsuit" against the county on behalf of the wife and children of Junious Roberts.

After the meeting, the lawyers declined to say whether their visit signaled the possibility of a settlement.

Roberts, 44, was shot once in the back April 14 after a brief struggle with Officer Sean Thielke in the parking lot of a McDonald's restaurant on Georgia Avenue in Wheaton.

It was the second time in two weeks that an unarmed black man was shot to death by a white county officer, and it again placed the Montgomery department in the position of denying it is racist.

"There's no penalty for shooting black people," said Leroy Warren, chairman of the NAACP criminal justice committee and a Silver Spring resident.

Special prosecutor sought

Warren and local NAACP chapter President Linda Plummer have asked Leggett to hire a special prosecutor to review this case and others.

"Things with the Justice Department are proceeding slowly and in the meantime people are dying at the hands of police officers," Plummer said.

Being on the defensive is not new for the 1,300-member Montgomery County Police Department. The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating complaints filed by the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for three years and is expected to finish in the next several months.

Two Montgomery County civilian review boards found no evidence of systematic discrimination.

Officers cleared

Grand juries cleared officers in the Roberts death and the March 31 fatal shooting of a Washington man who rammed a stolen car into three police cruisers in Silver Spring.

Roberts' family paid for an independent autopsy and hired the three lawyers to conduct their review of the case.

"To kill an unarmed man is just wrong," said Thomas Lewis, Roberts' half-brother. "Nobody, but especially a police officer, should accidentally kill somebody."

Yesterday's meeting was arranged by Leggett, a Howard University law professor, "to explore the challenges of the case," said council spokesman Patrick Lacefield.

The three lawyers emerged smiling from the council conference room after the meeting of more than an hour.

"You know I'd love to give you a comment, but I just can't," said Murphy, a Baltimore lawyer.

Cochran said the legal team was "going to wait for a period of time" before deciding whether to file suit.

The shooting generated a flurry of activity from County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who ordered a review of firearms training and asked the Police Department and county attorney to develop a program to identify and discipline officers who use racial profiling.

The department has been instructed to compile racial statistics on people who are stopped, arrested and charged.

Duncan said he does not believe white officers target minorities and that he initiated the action to give the public more confidence in its officers.

According to the police account of the shooting April 14, Thielke saw Roberts about 7 p.m. standing in an apartment complex parking lot talking to another man. The officer thought Thielke's eyes appeared "glassy" and thought the ignition on his late 1980s Oldsmobile was "punched," a sign of a stolen vehicle.

When Roberts drove to a nearby shopping center parking lot, Thielke followed and tried to stop him. Roberts, the officer said, ignored the cruiser's red roof lights and drove away.

The officer caught Roberts a few blocks away at the McDonald's and walked up to the car, his 9 mm semiautomatic Beretta drawn.

Roberts refused to get out, and Thielke said he could not see his right hand. When the officer tried to drag Roberts from his vehicle, the gun fired. The bullet struck Roberts' liver and he died three hours later.

Alcohol in blood

A state toxicology report showed Roberts had a blood-alcohol content of 0.27, nearly three times the legal limit.

Thielke, a six-year veteran of the force, did not wait for backup nor did he wait for the dispatcher to relay that the car was not stolen, police said.

"The officer obviously did not feel he had enough time to do anything other than what he did," said acting Chief Thomas Evans.

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