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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

But in a matter of minutes, the only witness who ever positively identified Stennett as the gunman evaporated on the stand - leaving the prosecution's case hinging on the one piece of evidence that was beyond dispute. And his lawyer knew there was no explaining it away.

"When they pull your client out of a burning Bronco sitting on top of a police car, you got a big problem," Pettit says. "There was no getting around that."

Closing arguments

Seven days after the trial began, Pettit walked from his place at the defense table and took his position before the jury to deliver his closing argument. He had been up most of the night writing it, but any lingering weariness dissipated the moment he took to his feet.

A bear of a man, Pettit retains the grace and composure of his days as a Howard University football player - utterly at ease before an audience. But his seeming confidence masked a well of insecurity about the fate of his client, whom he fully expected to see hauled off in chains by the end of the day.

Stennett slouched in his seat, as if completely unconcerned with the outcome.

"I'm not saying that this young man should walk out of here free," Pettit told the jury. "I'm not saying that he's not guilty of something. But I'm suggesting to you ... it's vehicular homicide, if anything, manslaughter, if anything. It's not murder in the first. It's not murder in the second degree."

As she had throughout the trial, Goldberg spent much of her time before the jury rehabilitating her witnesses and minimizing the lapses in police procedure. She stressed that many of the officers were "emotionally a mess" that night.

Then she tried to focus the jury's attention on Stennett - and on the definition of murder.

"He plowed through this man ... as he sat in his patrol car," she said, pacing back and forth across the floor and showing the jurors a photo of Officer Gavin. "He tried to go right through him. Don't forget that.

"This is not an accident, and there is absolutely no reasonable doubt under the sun not to convict this defendant of ... the murder of Kevon Gavin."

In the courtroom gallery, a wall of blue uniforms several rows deep had closed around the fallen officer's wife, Lisa. Behind her sat the defendant's mother, Margaret Beatty, supported by a small circle of friends.

As the jury filed out, everyone present expected them to return shortly with a guilty verdict.

The jury deliberates

The jurors entered a side room dominated by a long mahogany-colored table and chairs, with a blackboard on one wall and a water cooler in the corner. The setting was spartan but not uncomfortable.

On one wall, a grimy window overlooked Calvert Street and the spectacle of three television vans with their broadcast snorkels extended nearly to the jurors' eye level.

Technicians with walkie-talkies and cameras in hand milled around on the sidewalk, as television reporters scripted their lines on yellow legal pads for the live shot at 5 o'clock.

"Whichever way we decided, we knew we were going to be on the news that night," recalled the 43-year-old postal clerk. "There were TV trucks all up and down the street."

At the outset, they agreed to take a preliminary vote, moving around the table from one juror to the next, to get a sense of where they stood.

"Guilty," said one. "Guilty of murder."

At least two other jurors agreed.

John M. Miller Jr., a 25-year-old dishwasher, was among them.

"I was outnumbered," he recalls. "Most jurors felt he was innocent [of murder]. ... Most of them thought the police screwed up."

Miller, the lone white juror, was among the tenuous minority who thought Stennett might have intentionally rammed Gavin's cruiser. He was also among the few willing to overlook the breaches of procedure by police.

"I thought they were doing their best because they were thinking of the officer who died," he says. "They had that on their mind. I think they tried their best. I thought he must be guilty."

In this, Miller reflects the views of most white Americans.

Repeated opinion polls since 1994 by the Gallup Organization of Princeton, N.J., involving thousands of respondents, have consistently found that nearly 60 percent of whites express confidence in police, compared with less than 40 percent of racial minorities.

This wide disparity, combined with recent high-profile reports of alleged police perjury and evidence-planting, would prompt Baltimore Circuit Judge Audrey Carrion to order in January a grand jury investigation into police conduct.

But Miller echoed other members of the Stennett jury in saying that none of the other jurors pressured him or raised their voices in disagreement. Rather, deliberations were conducted with equanimity.

Nonetheless, at the end of their preliminary vote, it was clear that the majority was convinced that Stennett did not intentionally kill Officer Gavin.

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