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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

Within seconds, police radios all over West Baltimore were crackling with a description of the tan Ford truck and its heavily armed driver, and squad cars began converging on a wedge-shaped grid north of the park known as Sector 2.

Sucking a growing procession of cruisers along in its wake, the Bronco tore through a red light, narrowly missed a passing car and barreled across a grass median on Martin Luther King Boulevard before veering west onto Lombard Street.

One officer glanced at his speedometer: 80 miles an hour.

"He's pulling away from us like we're standing still," he told his partner.

Seconds later, two senior officers - a sergeant and a lieutenant - rolled into position on a cross street a few blocks away, timing their next move to the location reports pouring in over their radio. When the Bronco was a block away, Sgt. David Wimmer gunned his patrol car left onto Lombard to take up a position in front of the approaching truck.

No sooner had Wimmer finished his turn than the Bronco shot past, still gathering speed. In a split second, it pulled away at 90 miles an hour ... 95 ... 100 ... 104.

In the seat next to Wimmer, Lt. Mary Eilerman suddenly got a sick feeling in her stomach. Two blocks ahead, she saw a disaster in the making.

At that moment, Officer Kevon Gavin, 27 - a six-year veteran of the force, with a wife and three small children - was pulling his 1995 Chevy Caprice cruiser into the intersection at Gilmor Street as if to block the road.

"He came around that corner in almost slow motion," Eilerman would later testify, then turned left onto Lombard, directly into the path of the truck.

In his car trailing the Bronco, Wimmer had time to see the emergency lights swirling on the roof of Gavin's car up ahead. He heard Gavin's siren and thought he saw the Bronco sideswipe a parked car as it raced toward Gilmor Street.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Bronco rocketed into the left-front of Gavin's car and burst into flames, plowing the cruiser along Lombard in a maelstrom of shattered glass, sheered chrome, twisting steel and burning rubber.

More than 100 feet later, the ball of smoke and metal finally came to rest, with the burning Bronco piled up on the hood of Gavin's cruiser and the officer trapped in the wreckage.

Frantic, Wimmer, Eilerman and a dozen more officers rushed to their injured comrade. Inside the squad car, they found Gavin pinned under the dashboard - unconscious, bloody and barely breathing. The officers threw their shoulders into the demolished Bronco in a vain attempt to lift it off their friend.

"Signal 13! Signal 13! Officer down!" someone yelled into a radio transmitter.

Officers reached inside the mangled car, desperately ripping at Gavin's clothing and bulletproof vest, trying to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Someone kicked in the right-rear window and Officer Frank Jarrell Jr. squirmed inside - clawing his way over the cruiser's torn upholstery before realizing that the situation was hopeless.

"It was the most desperate, frustrating situation," Eilerman later testified.

The street was by then clogged with patrol cars, lights whirling, sirens screaming. Eilerman went from officer to officer, grabbing them by the shoulders, shaking them, demanding that they move their cruisers and clear the way for emergency equipment.

"I saw grown men ... standing in the middle of the road and a couple more into the park, standing there, sobbing uncontrollably," Eilerman recalled.

Within minutes, paramedics and firefighters were crawling over the wreckage, clamping an oxygen mask on the injured officer and maneuvering heavy rescue gear into place to tear the roof off the cruiser.

It would take them an hour to extract Gavin from the car. It would take Gavin 20 hours to die.

Meanwhile, several officers had approached the Bronco.

Inside, they found a box of ammunition, a Smith & Wesson 10 mm semiautomatic pistol, a blue baseball cap bearing the logo of the Indianapolis Pacers basketball team and a scrawny 17-year-old named Eric D. Stennett with a record of drug arrests going back to his 13th birthday.

No one else.

No possibility of mistaken identity.

No room for a shadow of doubt.

Then one of the officers reached in and grabbed the pistol with his bare hand - and the case of State vs. Stennett began to unravel.

Mishandled evidence

Amid the pandemonium at Lombard and Gilmor streets that night, at least three key pieces of evidence would be mishandled. And as time wore on - as hours gave way to days, and days turned into weeks - it only got worse.

Upon finding that Stennett was wearing a bulletproof vest, an officer tore it off without hesitation and threw it on the ground before evidence technicians had a chance to photograph the suspect actually wearing it.

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