Verdict assailed by family

Relatives, colleagues decry jury decision in officer's death

January 23, 2001|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

The family of a Baltimore police officer killed when a shooting suspect crashed into his patrol car called last week's jury decision clearing the driver of all charges "morally reprehensible" and complained that the sacrifice of their relative has been rendered "worthless."

"The jury let the citizens of Baltimore City down," said Shaun Gavin, the oldest cousin of Officer Kevon M. Gavin, who was 27 when he died in April. "The jurors have spoken that the sacrifice of Kevon's life was in vain."

Jurors took less than four hours to find Eric D. Stennett, 18, not guilty of murder and vehicular manslaughter charges, though his lawyer acknowledged his client was driving a Ford Bronco at over 100 mph when it slammed into Gavin's cruiser.

"I totally was in shock," said Lisa Gavin, the officer's widow.

Jurors could not be reached for comment yesterday, but two said Friday that they were concerned about inconsistent testimony from witnesses.

Stennett, released from jail early Saturday after spending nine months awaiting trial, declined to comment when reached at his grandmother's home in West Baltimore.

His lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, issued a statement yesterday on his behalf.

"I wish to extend my deepest sympathy to the Gavin family, the Baltimore City Police Department and the citizens of Baltimore," the statement said. "I am deeply sorry and apologetic for the accident that [took] Officer Gavin's life."

The verdict has triggered an outpouring of disbelief from prosecutors, police officers and Mayor Martin O'Malley, who at yesterday's news conference stood behind Gavin's family and the widows of two other officers killed in the line of duty.

Police were hoping for a murder conviction, maintaining that Stennett had time to maneuver around the cruiser, which was blocking a street to stop the fleeing vehicle driven by Stennett.

They argue that Stennett intentionally plowed into Gavin's cruiser.

The not guilty verdict stunned both sides in a case that Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called a "no brainer" for conviction.

Pettit argued the crash was an accident and told jurors that if they convicted his client of anything, at the most it should be manslaughter.

Stennett, who was wearing body armor and had a 10-mm semiautomatic weapon in the front seat of his car, was being pursued by city officers who said he had shot a man on a Southwest Baltimore street.

Casings found at the shooting scene matched the gun in Stennett's car. Stennett's fingerprints were on the gun's magazine, and he acknowledged driving the Bronco.

But officers had changed their reports -- two initially wrote that they believed Stennett lost control before hitting the cruiser, then submitted reports saying the crash was avoidable. Evidence was destroyed. The cumulative effect, Pettit said, "got the jury turned off."

Stennett was also acquitted of charges relating to the shooting.

Sgt. Frederick Roussey, whose son, Officer Jamie A. Roussey, was killed in a car accident last year, said the verdict hurt morale.

"I just wonder why we keep going out there for more," he said yesterday. "We're still going to do our job. We're not going to let them beat us."

Family members referred to notes that jurors passed to the judge during the trial. Two wanted to be excused to go on vacation; another wanted to go back to work; one was removed the day before deliberations because she often fell asleep.

"As a family, we find it morally reprehensible that the jury was unable to responsibly carry out their duties," Shaun Gavin said yesterday.

He didn't argue that there was inconsistent testimony, but said "at the very least, Eric Stennett should have been convicted of vehicular manslaughter."

"The fact that the jury failed to convict him even on this charge is a moral disgrace," he said. "Those jurors said to the good men and women of the Baltimore Police Department that the life of a police officer is worthless."

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