Fight over officer grows

NAACP's Mfume wants federal action in corruption case

Cummings backs Jessamy

Two are the latest to weigh in on decision to drop case

January 28, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called yesterday for federal charges to be filed against a Baltimore police officer suspected of corruption and expressed shock that State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy dropped charges in the case.

But Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore came to the defense of the top city prosecutor, saying he's worried that Mayor Martin O'Malley's profane criticism of her will obscure the main issue -- the crediblity of police.

"I'm so afraid that if we point the finger at Mrs. Jessamy, we take it off the police. We've got to make sure we're very careful," said the 7th District Democrat.

Mfume and Cummings are the latest in a growing number of leaders to weigh in on the furor touched off by Jessamy's decision last week to drop the charges against Officer Brian L. Sewell. Though the mayor apologized Friday for his choice of words the day before, he reiterated his outrage.

The FBI has begun a civil rights investigation into the Sewell case, and city police say they plan to hold a departmental hearing through which they will seek to fire the suspended officer.

Sewell was arrested in October as part of a Police Department sting operation targeting corruption, a priority for Commissioner Edward T. Norris. But the case against Sewell, accused of falsely arresting a man on drug charges, faltered after evidence was tainted by a break-in of a secret anti-corruption investigative office set up by Norris in Essex.

Jessamy said she had an "ethical responsibility" to drop charges because the physical evidence -- photographs police said they covertly took of Sewell -- and the credibility of police witnesses were compromised.

But police officials and O'Malley said she should have gone ahead with the case, giving a jury a chance to decide it. Sewell and his attorneys insist he is innocent and say he would have been cleared even if the burglary hadn't occcurred. No arrests have been made in the Christmas Eve break-in.

Mfume's strongly worded criticism of Jessamy was contained in a press release yesterday.

"We are shocked and amazed that the State's Attorney for Baltimore City has decided to drop all charges in this case," Mfume said in the statement. "The Police Department charged Mr. Sewell and a grand jury indicted him. It should be up to a jury of citizens to decide his guilt or innocence ... not the State's Attorney. One cannot help but to wonder whether or not innocent people have been wrongly convicted as a result of the acts that this officer has been charged with."

Mfume expressed support for "the innocent and decent police officers who continue to be tainted by this type of misconduct who also want this case to go forward."

Sewell's lawyer, police union attorney Henry L. Belsky, dismissed Mfume's comments. "This is not a racial matter," he said. He predicted the federal investigation would end the way Jessamy's did.

Mfume's statement made no mention of race. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has often taken positions on matters involving police and the communities they serve.

Cummings, who worked for 18 years as a defense attorney in Baltimore, said the problem in the Sewell case was that a police internal affairs office was burglarized and evidence stolen.

Cummings said several acquittals in recent high-profile murder cases make it clear that Baltimore juries don't trust police testimony. Cummings said federal help might be needed in the investigations of the Sewell case, the burglary and police corruption. But he did not call for federal intervention.

Cummings said Jessamy isn't "gun shy" and that he would not have brought the Sewell case to trial.

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