Recent verdicts concern officials

Juries' rulings show distrust of police among residents, attorneys say

January 28, 2001|By Caitlin Francke | Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

The acquittals of murder suspects in a recent pair of high-profile cases shocked many people but underscored for criminal justice officials a serious problem: Baltimore juries often don't believe police.

In the case of a police officer killed by a Ford Bronco driven by a fleeing suspect, jurors didn't trust police accounts. In the slaying of a dental student, jurors decided police grabbed the wrong man.

Public confidence in police in a number of cities has been undermined by corruption scandals, but in Baltimore the distrust has deeper roots.

"There is a history of strained relations between the police and some segments of the community, and people bring that history with them when they come here to serve as jurors," said Circuit Judge William D. Quarles. "It's sort of like a low-grade fever - it's always there."

The situation is made worse in Baltimore because routine missteps by city police during investigations resonate in already skeptical juries.

The two failed prosecutions shook public faith in the competence of the criminal justice system in Baltimore and were followed by other blows last week.

After prosecutors failed to provide defense attorneys with certain evidence promptly, a judge delayed for eight months the trial of suspects in the killing of five women in a rowhouse in December 1999. And prosecutors dropped charges in the corruption case against a police officer because they said a burglary of a police office compromised evidence, prompting profane criticism by Mayor Martin O'Malley of State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

Police had hoped a successful prosecution of the officer, who was suspected of falsely accusing a man of drug charges, would raise public confidence in the department. But discovery of corruption has set back police-community relations in other cities.

In Los Angeles, officers of the Rampart Division have been accused of planting evidence, committing perjury and shooting innocent people. The scandal has led to the dismissal of about 100 criminal cases in which tainted police testimony was suspected.

New Jersey state police have been accused of systematic racial profiling. In New York City, the shooting of Amadou Diallo and the beating of Abner Louima provoked outrage.

In September, the National Law Journal and DecisionQuest, a national jury consulting firm, found that more than a third of 1,000 potential jurors polled nationwide said the scandals in Los Angeles and elsewhere had negatively affected their perception of police officers. Half of African-Americans polled said police officers were not credible witnesses.

"There is so much of this going on, from coast to coast and border to border, that people are saying, `This is not what they taught me in high school civics,'" said Irwin H. Schwartz, a Seattle defense attorney and president-elect of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Although the credibility issue has been acknowledged by city judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys for years, it has come to a head because of the recent acquittals in cases in which police were key witnesses.

A jury deliberated four hours last week before acquitting a man charged with killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin when he crashed into Gavin's cruiser during a high-speed chase, though the man's lawyer acknowledged that his client was driving the speeding vehicle.

On Tuesday, a jury acquitted a schizophrenic man of charges that he killed dental student Christian W. Ludwig after the man's lawyer accused police of botching the investigation and charging the first helpless man they could find.

Although the strength of the evidence varied, the acquittals set off alarm bells for prosecutors, police and city leaders.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the verdicts "a kick in the stomach." He acknowledged they sent a message that people have deep-seated problems with the Police Department.

"I don't know if it's a trust factor or they [the jurors] were voicing their anger at police," he said.

Jessamy sounded a similar note.

The verdicts showed "a palpable bias against police officers in the community," Jessamy said. "It reveals to us a belief that police lie, manufacture evidence and are not to be trusted."

A juror in the Gavin case said the "police let the city down" with their investigation, but he did not elaborate.

Another juror said she and others would have convicted the defendant, Eric D. Stennett, of "negligent manslaughter" but prosecutors did not give them the choice.

Stennett was charged with murder, attempted murder and vehicular homicide, a form of manslaughter defined on the jury form as killing someone through "grossly negligent" behavior.

The juror also said police made too many mistakes. Two officers changed their statements, and the department scrapped Gavin's cruiser before the defense attorney could review it.

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