City settled police killing for $500,000

Appeals court orders agreement sealed in 1997 made public

Sun sought disclosure

Shooting outside Lexington Market caught on videotape

July 28, 2000|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

City officials paid the family of a man shot by police outside Lexington Market $500,000 in a secret settlement of a highly controversial shooting case captured on videotape.

Officials disclosed the settlement in the 1997 death of James Quarles III yesterday, after the state's highest court ruled in a suit brought by The Sun that the settlement terms must be revealed.

The settlement is one of the highest in a case of alleged misuse of force by city police, said Deputy City Solicitor Frank C. Derr. With the exception of one case, Derr said, "I don't recall any other settlements in that neighborhood involving police shootings."

"We have very few settlements or judgments higher than $500,000," he said.

Police shot Quarles on Aug. 9, 1997 after he refused repeated requests by armed officers to drop a knife he was holding. Officer Charles M. Smothers II shot Quarles because he felt threatened when, he said, Quarles moved toward him.

Controversy arose - and quickly made national news - because a bystander had videotaped the incident. The three-minute tape shows Smothers and other officers forming a semicircle around Quarles, their guns drawn, demanding he drop the knife.

A woman's voice can be heard over the noisy crowd twice yelling, "Don't shoot that boy." Seconds later, Smothers fired, hitting Quarles in the right shoulder. The bullet pierced his lungs.

The tape did not show whether Quarles, 22, made a move toward Smothers with the knife because his left hand and foot could not be seen.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy declined to press charges of murder or manslaughter because she said witnesses backed up Smothers' account and she thought he followed police procedures.

Quarles' family filed suit in September 1997, alleging that Smothers "maliciously shot" Quarles and that he should not have been on the street because he was on probation after being convicted of battery in a domestic incident in 1995 in which he fired his service weapon at his girlfriend.

After an investigation of the domestic incident, a police trial board recommended in November 1997 that Smothers be fired from the Police Department. He was let go the next month.

Neither Derr nor City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. would say what prompted the city to settle the case in January 1999. City lawyers decided at the 11th hour against taking the case to trial, reaching the half-million-dollar settlement as jurors were being picked in Baltimore Circuit Court.

"There is no secret hiding behind this case. We balanced the risk of losing the case and paying more money than the settlement," Derr said. "We considered the damages, we considered the risk of losing the case and we felt this was a reasonable compromise."

Zollicoffer said one major factor was that at the time there was no limit on the amount of money a jury could award a plaintiff in a suit against the Police Department. Now there is a $200,000 cap.

"I think that had more to do with [determining] the figure then anything else," Zollicoffer said.

The settlement was disclosed yesterday after the Court of Appeals ordered Monday that the file be opened.

The Sun challenged Baltimore Circuit Judge M. Brooke Murdock's sealing of the records detailing the terms of the settlement on the grounds it denied the newspaper's First Amendment rights.

In January 1999, the judge sealed the records at the request of both parties after she asked that the settlement amount be read aloud in a closed courtroom.

"The trial judge violated the common-law principle of openness regarding public access to court proceedings and court records," Judge John C. Eldridge wrote in the Court of Appeals opinion.

It will be a month before the settlement agreement becomes publicly available in Circuit Court files.

Zollicoffer disclosed the settlement terms yesterday in response to the newspaper's request, but did not provide his office's copy of the sealed document. His office could not locate that document, he said, explaining that an attorney involved in the case was on vacation.

Zollicoffer said the court's opinion will have little bearing on whether the office enters into confidential settlements.

Generally, he said, the parties in a case don't have to put the settlement amount on the court record. He said the court's opinion affects only settlements placed in the official record and then sealed.

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