Police union official seeking federal review of Stennett case

Justification for charges doubtful, experts say

January 20, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore police union official asked federal prosecutors yesterday to review the case of an 18-year-old man acquitted by a city jury of criminal charges in a high-speed crash that killed a police officer.

But a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia and several law professors interviewed yesterday said prosecution of Eric D. Stennett in federal court didn't seem likely, at least at first glance.

A city jury yesterday acquitted Stennett of all charges in the death of Baltimore Officer Kevon M. Gavin, who was killed when the Ford Bronco Stennett was driving rammed his patrol car during a high-speed chase through West Baltimore on April 20.

The Constitution's double jeopardy protection prevents Stennett from being retried in state Circuit Court, except for two misdemeanor charges - resisting arrest and second-degree assault - which have yet to be brought to a jury.

But federal prosecutors have taken and won cases against defendants who have been acquitted in state courts. The best-known example of that may be the Rodney King case in 1992, which ended in federal convictions for two Los Angeles police officers acquitted by a state jury of beating King.

But in that case, prosecutors used a civil rights statute that prohibits the abuse of citizens by police, prison officials or others acting under "color of law." The statute does not apply in Stennett's case, legal experts said.

A federal civil rights violation also can occur when someone harms another person based on "race, color, religion or national origin." Both Stennett and Gavin, however, are black.

While state law offers enhanced penalties for defendants convicted of killing police officers, the federal civil rights law doesn't single out police officers for protection.

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Baltimore police union, has asked federal prosecutors to consider filing charges against Stennett in light of the acquittal. But he admitted that he had no basis in mind for doing so.

"I'm not hopeful, but it's worth a look at it," McLhinney said. "We're just asking for help from anybody."

Cautioning that he was not familiar with the facts of the case, First Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen M. Schenning said his office would review the matter but might not be able to take it on.

"If he doesn't fit the federal statute, there wouldn't be any jurisdiction in federal court," Schenning said.

Legal experts contacted last night said the same, though they, too, were not intimately familiar with the facts. "I can't think off the top of my head of a basis," said Byron L. Warnken, a professor of criminal law at the University of Baltimore. "It sounds like all the federal statutes don't work."

University of Maryland law professor Douglas L. Colbert said: "There's nothing at all. I think this is probably the final statement."

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