Protesters seek investigation of death

North Baltimore man died in police custody

July 11, 2000|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

As the City Council held a special summer meeting yesterday, protesters outside City Hall called for an independent investigation into the death of Joseph Wilbon, a 46-year-old black North Baltimore man who died June 5 while in police custody.

After the meeting, Councilman Norman A. Handy Sr. said the council would be willing to hold a hearing on Wilbon's death provided it has "information that would at least speak to suspicious behavior by police or by Mr. Wilbon."

"All we have so far is a flurry of allegations, but the circumstances do raise some concern," he said.

Wilbon's family and their supporters said the death resulted from a police beating, and blamed it on the crime-fighting policy installed by Mayor Martin O'Malley and Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris. "O'Malley's Zero Tolerance Means More Police Abuse!" read one placard.

Sgt. Scott Rowe, a police department spokesman, said no signs of trauma were on the Wilbon's body. The state medical examiner's office has not determined a cause of death.

Rowe said Wilbon was arrested slightly after 1 p.m. in the 700 block of Bartlett St. after witnesses told police he might have been involved in automobile break-ins. Rowe said that as the arresting officers approached Wilbon, he was peering into parked cars.

Rowe said Wilbon was brought to the Central Booking and Intake Center to be charged with attempted larceny. While there, he said, Wilbon became incoherent and was taken to Mercy Medical Center in a prisoner transport van. After arriving at Mercy, Rowe said, Wilbon began screaming and went into convulsions. He was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m.

The internal investigation division is looking into Wilbon's death, Rowe said. Police officials declined to comment further yesterday.

The protesters dismissed the department's version of events, saying Wilbon, who worked at an auto body shop, might have had legitimate reasons to be looking at cars and may have been the victim of racial stereotyping.

"When we saw [Wilbon's body] for the first time at the viewing, he had bruises all up and down his face," said Renee Washington, 41, Wilbon's fiancM-ie. "I just saw him the day before, on [June 4], and there were no bruises on him."

About 35 protesters gathered in front of City Hall around 5 p.m. Eventually, they went inside and took elevators up to the council meeting.

However, the only mention of the case on the council floor was a brief comment by Handy.

Wilbon's relatives had hoped to hear the council call for an outside investigation.

"We're not going to stop," Nicole Wilbon, 24, the dead man's daughter, said through tears. "The truth will come out."

Sun staff writer Peter Hermann contributed to this article.

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