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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

"Their stories were totally different," recalls Moore, the MTA driver and church deaconess. "You had four people in the vehicle and their stories were different. ... Their stories didn't add up."

And on the witness stand, each of the four officers was forced to admit that he never saw the shooter's face because he had been focused on the gun.

Neither could they say whether anyone was in the Bronco with him.

"Didn't recognize shooter," Hawkes wrote in her notes of the trial. "Didn't see face. ... Couldn't ID shooter."

As the case unfolded, as the numerous lapses in accepted police practice were revealed, Hawkes grew increasingly skeptical, then aghast.

"Did not use gloves when handled weapon," she wrote. "Why??"

"Never reported finding ... scarf. Why???"

"Why no one followed procedure!!!"

"Gunshot residue test on Stennett. Did not find ... residue on hands."

"Did not know patrol car was destroyed."

"Deliberately kept Stennett from lawyer and family."

Among many actions by police that alienated the jurors, this was perhaps the most offensive to the many mothers sitting on the panel.

Stennett, still a minor, had a diagnosis after the crash of a concussion and possible skull fracture. But homicide detectives had kept the befuddled youth in custody for nearly three days - turning away repeated calls from his lawyer and his mother requesting to see him - until he was well enough to be questioned.

Police justified the action on the grounds that Stennett had never requested an attorney and that they were not technically required to tell the teen that his mother had already hired one for him.

Hawkes, among others, was livid at the revelation: "I was furious," she recalls. "I felt they were trying to railroad that boy."

A telling incident

Early in the trial, Judge Carol E. Smith released the panel for a lunch recess with the usual cautions not to discuss the case.

As they left the courthouse, the jurors split into two groups - one turning right toward sandwich shops along Lexington Street, the other turning left for the half-block walk to Gina's Cafe at Calvert and Fayette.

There, they filled their trays from the buffet tables and drifted to their usual seats in the corner. The easy conversation of prior meals had barely gotten under way, however, when one juror sat heavily in her chair and blurted her exasperation.

"I'm so sick about this case, I can't eat my lunch," she said. "The police must take us for fools."

One of the jurors who was there recalled that several in the group nodded agreement, then cautioned the woman about talking further of her misgivings.

"The judge had just finished telling us we weren't supposed to be talking about the case," said the juror, a 43-year-old postal clerk and single mother from Northeast Baltimore. "So a couple of us warned her not to say anything more, like: `We're all in this together, and we know how you feel, but we got to wait till we hear all the evidence.'"

The woman apologized and spoke no more of the case.

But as a barometer of the jury's mood, the brief interlude at Gina's was telling.

For one thing, it was still early in the trial and at least a few jurors were already having doubts about the police testimony. For another, the worst of the evidentiary problems was still to come.

A short time later, Sergeant Wimmer took the stand.

Conflicting accounts

Among the officers closest to the crash at the moment of impact, Wimmer should have been one of the prosecution's best witnesses. But his credibility quickly ebbed under a lacerating cross-examination by Stennett's lawyer.

On the night of the crash, Wimmer wrote in his official statement that the Bronco had sideswiped at least one parked car on Lombard Street. And he reported that the driver of the Bronco "seemed to lose control" a heartbeat before the truck "veered" into Gavin's cruiser.

In other words, by Wimmer's account, the Bronco was being driven recklessly, but there was nothing intentional about the killing. Rather, the death of Officer Gavin was an accident - a horrible, stupid, reckless accident.

Wimmer, however, did not leave it at that.

Several days after filing his original report, he submitted a second.

"I'll tell you, my head was really screwed up that night," Wimmer told the jury. "I was very emotional, and I wrote basically what I had in my head that night.

"The next day, I was on my leave day and ... I realized what I really saw that night."

But Wimmer's second report left out any mention of the Bronco sideswiping a parked car - and police found no damaged car that night. It also left out the part about the Bronco appearing to go out of control. And it no longer described the truck as veering before the collision.

Instead, Wimmer wrote that the Bronco "did not attempt to slow down or stop," and that the driver had plenty of room to go around Gavin's cruiser, but ran into it instead.

According to Wimmer's second account, the crash was an intentional act - murder.

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