Distressing jury verdict

Acquittal: Not-guilty verdict in city police officer's killing makes crime-fighting even more difficult.

January 24, 2001

OFFICER Kevon M. Gavin was fatally crushed when a Ford Bronco rammed into his patrol car at 104 miles an hour.

Was it murder or vehicular manslaughter?

Neither, according to a Baltimore City jury, which acquitted an 18-year-old budding career criminal named Eric D. Stennett of all charges stemming from last April's high-speed collision.

This verdict has been greeted with shock and disbelief. Even Mr. Stennett's lawyer told the jury his client was not entirely innocent. "I'm not saying this young man should walk out of here," lawyer A. Dwight Pettit said, seeming to argue for conviction on a lesser charge. "I'm not saying he is not guilty of something."

In the end, the jury chose to disregard the evidence that pointed to Mr. Stennett as a suspected gunslinger wearing body armor and fleeing a crime scene. Instead, jurors believed Mr. Pettit's contention that the defendant was an innocent man who never meant to hurt anyone -- that he just happened to lose control of the sports utility vehicle he was driving.

However inconsistent some evidence at the trial may have been -- police changed their original reports to strengthen the city's case against Mr. Stennett -- the fact is that Officer Gavin, a six-year veteran of the police force and father of three, lost his life as a direct result of Mr. Stennett's actions.

It is incomprehensible how the jury, through its decision, could suggest that Officer Gavin committed suicide by parking his car, with its lights flashing, as a barricade to stop a fleeing suspect.

In this case, the jury erred, pure and simple. In determining guilt or innocence, it did not reflect the "collective sentiments and conscience of the community," which it is supposed to do under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Any prosecutor -- or defense lawyer, for that matter -- can attest to the unpredictability of Baltimore juries in homicide cases. This particular jury showed such antipathy toward the police and the prosecutors' case that it delivered a unanimous, not-guilty verdict after only four hours' deliberation.

The community's outrage is understandable. The implausible verdict makes law enforcement more difficult in Baltimore at a time when police have finally had some success in bringing the city's endemic gun violence under control.

This verdict undermines the unwritten social contract that pledges the community's support for the men and women who each day risk their lives to protect this community.

With such a low premium being placed on officer's lives, who would want the job?

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