Jury distrust, bitter verdict

Fallout: Many blamed the jury when a Baltimore teen was acquitted of murder in the death of a police officer.But police made errors -- and some jurors suspected worse.

March 11, 2001|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

Lisa Goldberg heard the police officers before she saw them - angry, disbelieving voices echoing in the marble hall outside Courtroom 201. They were waiting for her. With questions she could not begin to answer.

The workaholic mother of one had been through many rough scenes in her 10 years as a Baltimore prosecutor. She had held many hands, consoled many a murder victim's family.

But nothing quite like this.

"What, they didn't believe us?" one of the officers gasped as she stepped into the hallway. "The jury didn't believe us!"

Moments earlier, in one of the more incendiary verdicts in years, a Circuit Court jury had acquitted Eric D. Stennett of murder - clearing the gangly 17-year-old chronic offender in the horrific death last April of Baltimore police Officer Kevon M. Gavin.

Their verdict brought forth a torrent of recrimination. Jurors were criticized by public officials, lambasted on talk radio and excoriated by co-workers and their own families for putting an alleged cop-killer back on the street.

Now, seven weeks later, the jurors say enough is enough. They want it known that they did not reach their verdict haphazardly. And they are tired of being second-guessed by authorities who never set foot in the courtroom.

The criticisms "really sting," says Vivian Moore, 35, an MTA bus driver and church deaconess. "If you don't give them what they want, you're a bad person. ... We're not bad people. We're human beings."

In kitchen table conversations and late-evening talks in their living rooms, six of the 12 average citizens who decided the case on Jan. 19 described their experience to The Sun in recent days.

For the record, they say, there was little question that Stennett was responsible for Officer Gavin's death. Nonetheless, they felt they had no choice but to let him go.

It may be difficult to understand for those who have never sat through a trial. But in the hands of an expert defense lawyer, jurors say, hairline cracks in the evidence can become ruinous fissures, especially when police commit serial errors that fracture the proof from beginning to end.

In the realm of law, all it takes is a "reasonable doubt." And there were doubts aplenty in the case of State vs. Stennett.

But an exhaustive review of court records - and interviews with the trial's major participants - reveal other forces at work in the Stennett case.

Experts say that urban jurors, particularly African-Americans, have grown increasingly willing in recent years to acquit defendants they believe are guilty if they detect any abuse of police power.

Prosecutors, who despair that their cases now must be flawless to win, increasingly find themselves facing jurors for whom police misconduct is an all-too-common experience.

"In this day and age, a person of color is going to have mistrust of the police because these things happen," says juror Linda Hawkes, a 48-year-old health claims processor who says her son once missed a funeral after being detained by police without reason.

In Baltimore, a computer survey by The Sun of 300 Circuit Court verdicts over a two-year period found that juries threw out more than 40 percent of criminal cases that came before them.

Tom Munsterman of the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit judicial think tank in Williamsburg, Va., says similar numbers are emerging in cities all over the country.

Paul Butler, a black former federal prosecutor and professor at George Washington University Law School, says African-Americans have become "extremely sensitive to certain patterns of testimony or to lapses in accepted police procedure."

"And they're far less likely to overlook it, or to give police the benefit of a doubt, especially if there's compound errors."

There was no lack of errors in the case against Eric D. Stennett - and at least a few jurors thought they detected something worse.

The runaway Bronco

The central events of April 20th were hardly in dispute.

At 8:04 that night, a tan Ford Bronco with darkly tinted windows stopped in front of an abandoned house at 2028 Wilkens Ave. in Southwest Baltimore near Carroll Park. On the steps, two men sat talking and drinking beer with their backs to the boarded-up front door.

The driver of the Bronco, a thin, black male, got out, took a few steps toward the curb, pulled a heavy, chrome-plated handgun and opened fire.

As the intended victims ran for cover, the gun spit sparks and smoke and rained empty brass shell casings in the middle of the street.

Four police officers, members of a crime-suppression detail who happened to be nearby in an unmarked car, turned toward the sound of the gunfire in time to see the shooter blaze away his last few rounds of ammunition before walking back to the Bronco.

The officers whipped in behind the truck. But as they piled out of their car to arrest the gunman, the Bronco bolted.

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