Prosecutor says killing of Palczynski apparently justified

Investigation continues into shots that ended standoff

March 29, 2000|By Dennis O'Brien and Dan Thanh Dang | Dennis O'Brien and Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The police officers who shot Joseph C. Palczynski to death and ended his two-week rampage apparently acted within legal guidelines for police use of deadly force, according to the Baltimore County state's attorney's office.

Deputy State's Attorney Sue A. Schenning said that although the March 21 shooting is under investigation, preliminary reports show the officers acted properly when they stormed the Dundalk apartment where Palczynski slept and shot him as he rose from a sofa with a handgun on his stomach and other weapons nearby.

Schenning said that she has neither discussed details of the investigation with county police nor seen internal reports concerning it. But Schenning, who reviews police shootings for the office, said that Palczynski was armed and had a hostage.

"Everything I know indicates it was a justified shooting," she said.

Police said that Palczynski -- accused of killing four people and kidnapping two others -- was asleep in the living room about 10: 20 p.m. when hostage Lynn Whitehead slipped out a bedroom window of the first-floor apartment. She was followed a few minutes later by her boyfriend, Andy McCord.

A team of police officers, including tactical Officers Frank Barile, 36, and Robert Jones, 37, ended the four-day standoff by rushing into the apartment, shooting Palczynski and rescuing the couple's 12-year-old son, Bradley McCord, who was asleep in the kitchen nearby.

The officers fired their MP 5s -- 9 mm submachine guns capable of firing 800 rounds per minute -- and hit Palczynski as he began to rise from a sofa. He had a .357 Magnum revolver on his stomach, police said.

Both officers, who were placed on routine paid administrative leave for a few days after the shooting, have returned to active duty.

A lawyer for the officers said yesterday that he wasn't surprised by the state's attorney's view of the shooting.

"It certainly doesn't surprise me at all about this decision because both officers were acting in accordance with their training and within specific parameters that were discussed with their supervisors," said Michael Marshall, a lawyer for the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 4. "Everything they did was carefully thought out, and they did exactly what they were trained to do and what they intended to do."

Cole Weston, president of FOP Lodge 4, said he welcomed the statement of support from the state's attorney's office. "I'm waiting for the official police report like everyone else but, clearly, at this point, there seems to be a feeling that the ultimate result of the investigation is going to be a positive one."

Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman, said investigators are awaiting a final autopsy report and are interviewing witnesses involved in Palczynski's rampage.

"We need to complete the interviews on all the people involved in this incident. It could take weeks, several weeks," Toohey said.

Police said that once the homicide unit completes its investigation, a report on the shooting will be submitted to the state's attorney's office for review.

But Schenning -- and other legal experts -- say that several factors work in the officers' favor, including Palczynski's violent past, his being heavily armed, his repeated threats to kill the hostages and the police, and the presence of a hostage in the apartment.

"You have someone who is heavily armed, who apparently has already killed four people and who is a threat to kill even more," she said. "Under those circumstances, police have an affirmative duty to act."

Legal experts say a police officer may use deadly force if someone is threatened with death or serious harm.

"At the time the deadly force is used, the law requires that there be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm to either the officer or to anyone else," said Gary May, former chief legal counsel for the city police department.

Surell Brady, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland Law School, said that Bradley McCord's presence in the apartment is a key in justifying the shooting.

"With that third person in that apartment, that child, all bets are off in terms of use of deadly force," she said.

Brady, a former Justice Department lawyer who supervised the federal prosecution of police officers in the Rodney King case, said that the police shooting sounded justified to her.

"I think a prosecutor would have a lot of trouble trying to convict these officers when there was a hostage in the house," she said.

County officials said yesterday that taxpayer costs for Palczynski's two-week rampage are expected to reach about $500,000, with most of that for overtime pay to county police.

Elise Armacost, a county government spokeswoman, said officials have not estimated other costs, such as overtime for firefighters and paramedics and fuel for helicopters. But she said those costs are not expected to be nearly as much as the money spent on police overtime.

Armacost said the funds, which must be approved by the County Council, are expected to be taken from the county's $96 million surplus.

County officials also are reviewing about 20 damage claims from residents of the Berkshire community where the siege took place, she said.

Compensation for damage to cars, homes -- and, in one case, for a dog that was shot by police -- will come from the county's $26 million "self-insurance" fund, she said.

A city police spokesman said the Palczynski case also cost city taxpayers an estimated $7,500 for 300 hours of overtime for officers.

Peter A. Gulotta, an FBI spokesman, said overtime costs to the agency were unavailable yesterday, but that the case was a "substantial drain" on the agency's resources in Maryland.

Sun staff writers Jay Apperson and Michael James contributed to this article.

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