(Page 3 of 8)

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

At the scene of the shooting on Wilkens Avenue, a second officer scooped up the spent shell casings from the street but failed to mark their position on the asphalt for photographers. So he came back later and chalked them off from memory, drawing 10 yellow X's on the ground where he had found nine brass cartridges.

One officer filed a report from the scene but didn't sign it. Another neglected to date his. And still another filled out his report of the night's events, then went home, changed his mind and filed a second one several days later that contradicted his first version.

Officers who witnessed the shooting said the gunman had a large bandana or scarf wrapped around his hand as he fired - suggesting he was trying to keep incriminating gunpowder residue from sticking to his fingers. But police didn't report finding one.

Five months later, a scarf allegedly recovered at the crash scene surfaced in an evidence locker at headquarters, covered with gunpowder residue.

Months after the crash - and months before Stennett was to stand trial in the death of Officer Gavin - officials at the city Public Works Department's central garage on Hanover Street sold the officer's demolished cruiser for scrap. Only when Stennett's attorneys went to inspect the car did stunned Baltimore detectives learn that a sizable piece of evidence in their case had been liquidated.

For A. Dwight Pettit, it was a cascade of almost impossible good fortune.

`A lot to work with'

A shrewd criminal defense lawyer with 30 years' experience and a gracious manner that has won over many a Baltimore jury, Pettit knew a "dog" when he saw one. And Eric Stennett's case looked like a dog from Day One, a sure-fire conviction.

But as Pettit learned more about the irregularities in the evidence, he began to see cracks of daylight in the case against his client.

"When an officer goes down, they call out the cavalry," Pettit says. "With the emotion running the way it was that night, they [police] were so rocked to their foundations emotionally that it led to a loss of professionalism.

"I don't fault them for that. They're human. But it's a dumb thing to pick up the gun with your bare hand. It's a dumb thing to handle the bullets. It's a dumb thing to put 10 X's on the street when you only have nine cartridges to show the jury.

"And that's before we even start talking about how they managed to lose the police car, you know? It's like, `Come on, guys, get it together!' By the time the trial started, the Police Department had given us a lot to work with."

Growing skepticism

Tuesday, Jan. 9, dawned gray and drizzly, but the first swaths of black and purple bunting were beginning to appear downtown after a spectacular upset win by the Ravens the previous Sunday over the Tennessee Titans. And all of Baltimore was buzzing about the team's chances of going to the Super Bowl.

But there was no jubilation in Room 201 at the courthouse as jurors filed to their seats for the first day of testimony in the matter of indictment No. 100143018-20.

Ranging in age from 25 to 67, all were working class, including a telephone operator, a laundry attendant, a bus driver, a cook and a retired steel worker. Nine were African-American women. Three were men - one black, one Hispanic and one white.

In opening remarks to the jury, Pettit noted repeatedly that police accounts of the night of April 20 would form the bulk of the prosecution's case against his client.

"No civilian witness will take that stand to voluntarily identify Eric Stennett as shooting a gun that night," Pettit said, one of many suggestions that the jurors should be skeptical of police testimony in the case.

And the police witnesses did not disappoint him.

Over the course of a few hours of testimony, the four officers who witnessed the shooting gave varying descriptions of the bandana that Stennett supposedly wore around his hand that night.

One said it was a "dark" color.

A second said it was "bright," then "red," then "bright" again.

Another didn't describe the color.

And the fourth officer didn't mention the scarf at all.

In fact, the scarf that surfaced five months after the shooting was black.

In telling how the gunman walked to his car after the shooting, the four officers variously described his gait as a "swagger," "a slow, cocky walk," "a hurried sway" or said simply, "he walked."

The distinctions were small, and the variances were slight, and they had nothing to do with the facts at the heart of the case.

Stennett was the only person in the Bronco that destroyed Officer Gavin's cruiser. Marks on the shell casings from the Wilkens Avenue shooting precisely matched the firing mechanism of the stolen 10 mm pistol found in Stennett's truck. And the ammunition clip in the pistol had Stennett's thumbprint on it.

But Pettit did not let a single factual wrinkle or lapse in procedure pass the jury's attention.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.