Denunciations in shootings by police are short on logic

June 24, 2000|By Gregory Kane

FIGURE THIS one.

Almost three years ago, James Quarles refused to drop a knife in spite of at least a half-dozen police orders to do so. Instead, he went into a crouch, lowered the knife to the ground, tightened his grip on it and moved his left foot toward Officer Charles Smothers, who fired one shot and killed him. State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy refused to send the case to the grand jury, figuring there was no basis for criminal charges against Smothers. She was excoriated by critics, one of whom went so far as to call her a "handkerchief-head" and an "Aunt Jemima."

Last October, Officer Barry Hamilton fatally shot fleeing suspected car thief Larry Hubbard in the back of the head. Hamilton said Hubbard was trying to grab the gun of Officer Robert Quick, Hamilton's partner. Some eyewitnesses said Hubbard was being severely beaten, did not try to grab the gun and was pleading for his life when Hamilton shot him.

Jessamy sent that case to the grand jury, which last week decided not to indict either officer. Now, if the following were a game show question, you'd probably win easy money. Guess who some folks are blaming for the grand jury decision?

Pat Jessamy.

"Damned if you do, damned if you don't," Jessamy said, summing up her reaction to the reaction. She quickly added that she's not out to win popularity contests.

"If you satisfy people all the time, you're doing something wrong," Jessamy said a couple of days after the grand jury decision. "You can't satisfy everybody. When you try to, that's when you go wrong."

Jessamy insists that in the Hubbard shooting, her office tried to do everything right. Prosecutors brought in every eyewitness they knew of. They asked the attorneys who have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city on behalf of Hubbard's family if they had any witnesses. (The lawyers didn't provide any eyewitness names, she said.) They kept the facts about Hubbard's criminal record from the grand jury.

"We presented all the evidence," Jessamy said. "We didn't want to do anything to prejudice the jury for or against either Hubbard or the officers. It was very important the jury see the unvarnished truth."

Some of the eyewitness testimony, Jessamy added, verified the account of Hamilton and Quick. Even the testimony of those who claimed the shooting was unjustified didn't do too much damage to the officers.

"Once [the eyewitnesses] were sworn, there was not that big a gap" between the officers' version and that of eyewitnesses. The gap "was not as broad as we had been led to believe."

That gap was created by the Hubbard family lawyers and some local black leaders, who went to the neighborhood of the shooting and took statements from those who claimed to be eyewitnesses. Perhaps the leaders can't be blamed for being snookered, but the attorneys -- Billy Murphy, A. Dwight Pettit and later Johnnie Cochran, who leaped into the controversy with his pupils alight with dollar signs -- should know better. All these guys have experience as criminal defense lawyers. They know eyewitness testimony is some of the shakiest evidence presented in the courtroom.

Pettit, reacting to the grand jury decision, implied that Jessamy didn't try for an indictment. Could that be because, counsel, she sniffed the detestable stench of bat guano in the allegations that Hamilton shot a defenseless Hubbard "as he pleaded for his life"?

Yes, Jessamy could have railroaded Quick and Hamilton into jail. But her critics should realize that the Amtrak station is located a mile or so to the north of the courthouse. Those who want her to turn Baltimore's halls of justice into kangaroo courts should perhaps move to Australia.

Those same critics also accuse Jessamy of being reluctant to charge officers with misconduct.

"That is incorrect," she noted. "I've gotten the only conviction [of a police officer in a fatal shooting in Maryland], even though it was overturned."

That was against Sgt. Stephen Pagotto, who was accused of shooting an unarmed man on probation when he tried to drive off in a car after being stopped for a possible traffic violation. Her office has indicted two officers for shootings, Jessamy contends, and others for various on-duty offenses.

"We're very aggressive on that point," she concluded.

Equally aggressive are those who propagate the dangerous notion that there is no such thing as a justifiable police shooting. Those liberal, black Democratic leaders who have condemned Hubbard's shooting have constructed quite the ideological maze for themselves on this one. Hamilton and Quick were part of a unit formed to get handguns off the streets. Their superiors have said they were quite good at it. Now who, for years, has been urging police to "get handguns off our streets"?

Might the answer be "those same black leaders who want Hamilton and Quick crucified"?

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