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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

In the jury box, Hawkes caught the inconsistency - and the implications - immediately. The difference between Wimmer's two reports was the difference between Stennett's spending a few years in prison for manslaughter or the rest of his life for homicide.

"First report, suspect clipped another car and lost control of Bronco," Hawkes wrote in her notes, "2nd report, suspect deliberately ran into patrol car.

"Why two reports totally different ... Not customary to rewrite reports!"

In his cross-examination of the sergeant, Pettit was merciless.

Q: "Isn't it a fact, officer, on the [first] report of the 20th ... what you wrote then was the truth?"

A: "No. I wrote what was in my head, sir."

Q: "And, wasn't that the truth?"

A: "That's what I believed [it] to be at the time because that's what was in my head, yes, sir."

The explanation left more than a few jurors incredulous.

"You can't just go turning your report around to ... some version you want to believe happened," said one juror, a 56-year-old retired teacher's aide from West Baltimore. "You're supposed to do your job and do it right. Show some professionalism, especially when you're talking about a criminal charge.

"Two reports?! Saying two different things?! Please."

And it was not the only such instance.

A question of intent

In a police reconstruction of the crash, traffic Officer Raymond A. Howard reported that he had found a tire track 50 feet beyond the point of impact that indicated that the Bronco continued to accelerate even after it hit Officer Gavin's cruiser.

Based on that evidence, Howard concluded in an undated, unsigned report that the crash "was not a `traffic collision,' but appeared to be a purposeful intent on the Bronco driver's part."

"This collision was intentional," he wrote.

Once again, according to police, the death of Officer Gavin was murder.

And once again, an officer felt compelled to change his report.

After being confronted six months later with evidence gathered by a private accident analyst hired by Stennett's lawyers, Howard issued another unsigned, undated report.

In fact, he acknowledged, the track he had found at the scene did not match any of the Bronco's tires.

And he conceded that severe damage to the throttle linkage "disallowed any further acceleration" after impact.

"This supplementary report is in reference to a correction necessary for certain information that was originally reported, but additional facts have been discovered," Howard's second report concluded.

The crash was downgraded from "intentional" to "avoidable."

Or, as the jury saw it, from murder to something more like manslaughter.

A bomb called Dorsey

The final and perhaps most devastating blow to the police version of events centered on a pair of pants - specifically, a pair of black jeans worn by Antonio Dorsey, 18.

In the sequence of events leading to the death of Officer Gavin, none was as important in the minds of many jurors as the shooting on Wilkens Avenue. For it was the shooting that set everything else in motion.

And the alleged target of that shooting was Dorsey.

Despite the fusillade of bullets thrown his way that night as he sat on the steps drinking beer, Dorsey was untouched save for a nick on his right shin. And nothing about the nick distinguished it as a bullet wound.

Taken into custody by police, Dorsey agreed to identify the man who shot at him, choosing a picture of Eric D. Stennett from a photo lineup of possible suspects.

Detectives photographed the front of his jeans and the nick on his shin. But they did not impound Dorsey's pants as evidence. Neither did they insist that he see a doctor after he refused treatment.

Worse, when their film was developed, there was no bullet hole visible in the pants.

"I remember thinking: `How exactly does Antonio Dorsey get a supposed bullet wound in his leg without there being a bullet hole in his pants?'" Pettit recalls. "And how does the detective - a 21-year veteran of the force - explain the fact that he didn't seize the jeans?"

"We just forgot," testified Detective Joseph Smith of the Southern District, acknowledging that he let Dorsey walk out of the police station that night with his pants still on.

Then Dorsey took the stand - and dropped a bomb in the middle of the prosecution's case.

Dorsey testified that police had handcuffed him, threatened him repeatedly and told him he couldn't leave until he identified Stennett's picture.

"The whole time I was there I was being harassed," he told the jury, adding that he couldn't identify the gunman because he was wearing a mask.

Prosecutor Goldberg has grown accustomed to such moments, she now says: Eyewitnesses who lie, recant or conveniently forget are commonplace in Baltimore Circuit Court - often for fear of retaliation, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of sinking a case.

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