Jury acquits teen accused in death of police officer

Jurors attribute surprising verdict to conflicting testimony

Gavin killed during chase

January 20, 2001|By Caitlin Francke and Peter Hermann | Caitlin Francke and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A teen-ager who killed a police officer when he crashed into a patrol car during a high-speed chase was set free yesterday after a Baltimore jury acquitted him of all charges - a verdict that stunned police, prosecutors and even the defendant's mother.

The jury deliberated about four hours before clearing Eric D. Stennett of murder, attempted murder and vehicular manslaughter charges, even though his own lawyer admitted that Stennett was driving the speeding Ford Bronco that killed Officer Kevon M. Gavin.

"I'm speechless," said Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg, who prosecuted the case in Baltimore Circuit Court over the past two weeks.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the case a "no-brainer" for conviction. He said the not guilty verdict felt like "a kick in the stomach."

Even Stennett's mother, who leaped from her seat in the courtroom pew to hug weeping family members when the verdict was announced, acknowledged that she was surprised that he had not been convicted on some charge because police pulled him out of the car that crushed Officer Gavin.

"He was there," said Stennett's mother, Margaret Beady. But, she added, "I don't believe my child was driving."

The officer's widow, Lisa Gavin, was so distraught she was escorted out of the back of the courthouse to avoid a media throng. She had to drive to New York yesterday to attend a funeral for her late husband's grandmother, who had died of cancer.

Jurors declined to be interviewed at the courthouse, but some later said prosecution witnesses gave contradictory testimony that undercut the case.

Stennett was expected to be released from the city jail last night.

Prosecutors argued that on April 20 police saw Stennett shoot into a crowd in Southwest Baltimore and drive away in his tan Ford Bronco. He led police on a chase at speeds as high as 104 mph through West Baltimore.

Gavin attempted to stop Stennett and pulled his cruiser onto West Lombard Street. But instead of stopping, Stennett, clad in body armor and with a 10 mm semiautomatic handgun in the front seat of his car, rammed into Gavin's cruiser, pushing it 109 feet down the street.

Prosecutors charged him with attempted first- and second-degree murder in the shooting. They charged him with first- and second-degree murder and vehicular manslaughter in the death of Gavin, alleging that he could have gone around the police car, but instead intentionally plowed into it.

For a murder conviction, prosecutors had to show that Stennett intended to kill Gavin. But they needed only to convince the jury that the defendant acted in a "grossly negligent" manner that killed someone for a conviction on vehicular manslaughter charges.

Stennett's attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, never disputed that Stennett was racing away from police when he crashed into the cruiser. But he argued the crash was an accident and asked jurors in closing arguments Thursday to convict him of the manslaughter charge, if anything.

"I'm not saying this young man should walk out of here. I'm not saying he is not guilty of something," he told the jurors.

One of the jurors, Andrew Edwards Jr., 67, said the evidence presented at trial "wasn't very good."

"I think the police let the city down," the steelworker said, declining to elaborate. "I just want to get it out of my mind."

Another juror, Gloria D. Goodwyn, 62, did not want to answer questions, but in a prepared statement read by her daughter, she said "each and every witness" was inconsistent. Therefore, she said, jurors found the "testimony to be incredulous."

Goodwyn also gave a reason for the jury's decision that surprised both police and Pettit. Her statement indicated that jurors were confused about the significance of details in Gavin's autopsy.

She said jurors believed Gavin's .04 blood alcohol level indicated that he had been drinking, making him equally culpable in the crash.

But in fact, that level of alcohol in the blood is typical after death, as the body decomposes, both sides in the case said yesterday. The alcohol level was explained at trial but never was raised as an issue. The autopsy listing the alcohol level was entered as evidence - as is common.

"It sounds like a greater injustice was done, if that is the reason the jurors are using for acquittal," said Sgt. Ernest M. Anderson, one of the lead homicide detectives in the case.

Norris, the police commissioner, said the jury's decision broke an unwritten pact - officers risk their lives to protect the citizenry, and they expect justice in return.

"People have to do their jobs when they are called on," Norris said. "It's a bad day for us and the Gavin family."

Pettit focused much of his argument throughout the trial on trying to convince the jury that the crash was not intentional, and therefore not murder.

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