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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

Secondly, there was ample evidence that Officer Gavin might have contributed to the crash. By pulling his patrol car in front of the speeding Bronco, he left Stennett very little room for error.

Then, too, there was the autopsy report.

Introduced as evidence in court, it was little discussed during the trial. But it contained at least two facts that the jury decided were vital on the question of whether Officer Gavin might have played a role in his own death.

Not only was the officer an asthmatic, but he also had been suffering from pneumonia. And he had alcohol in his bloodstream - nearly half the level to be considered legally drunk under Maryland law.

A medical examiner testified that the body produces alcohol as it decomposes. But jurors speculated that the alcohol in Gavin's system might just as readily have come from medication.

"Maybe he wasn't alert," Hawkes says. "To me, he shouldn't have been at work, between the asthma and the pneumonia. ... We figured he couldn't have been feeling too well."

Finally, many of the jurors felt that the crash never would have occurred if police had not been chasing the Bronco.

"He was partly responsible for the officer's death because he was speeding," Hawkes says of Stennett. "But I also feel the officers chasing him share some responsibility. They should have backed off. ... They were speeding, too."

In the final hour leading to their verdict, the jury became preoccupied with such questions and ultimately returned to the evidence itself - the inconsistent testimony, the botched reports, the disappearing police cruiser, the mishandled gun and shell casings, the lost scarf.

And one by one, the holdouts collapsed as the evidence against Stennett led them from first-degree murder, to murder two, to manslaughter to something much less.

"A lot of things were not right," the Hispanic juror recalls. "Some cops did their job. Some of them did wrong. ... Every one of them did things they were not supposed to do.

"We were trying so hard [to convict]. We couldn't find any proof or reason to do it."

And so it was that early on that Friday afternoon, the jury came back with "not guilty" verdicts on all charges - exonerating Stennett of any responsibility for the death of Officer Kevon Malik Gavin and acquitting him of attempted murder in the Wilkens Avenue shooting, of using a handgun to commit a felony and of wearing a bulletproof vest during the commission of a crime.

Officer Gavin's widow fled the courtroom in tears.

Eric Stennett's mother leaped from her seat, sobbing, "Oh, yes, yes!"

Impassive as ever, the defendant sat next to his lawyer with his legs sprawled before him, expressionless. At the other end of the table, Pettit stood with his mouth open as the jury filed out of the courtroom, a stunned expression etched on his face.

`How did this happen?'

Within the hour, the recriminations had begun.

Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the verdict "a kick in the stomach ... a bad day for us and the Gavin family," and fumed that a guilty verdict should have been a "no-brainer" for the jury.

A shaken Mayor Martin O'Malley said the outcome showed "no respect" for the fallen officer, and asked: "How did this happen?"

Lisa Goldberg has been wondering the same thing ever since.

A career prosecutor with a reputation for coolness under pressure, she sits in her tiny office on the fourth floor of Courthouse East, contemplating a dozen red files full of bloody crimes that make up her caseload.

A defendant does not make it this far - does not arrive on Goldberg's desk, next to the framed pictures of her 4-year-old daughter, in the homicide office - unless the facts are damning.

"They've really come to expect perfection," she says of Baltimore juries, "and police officers are human, so they're never going to get perfection. ... If this verdict is any indication, we have a serious problem.

"I have 12 more cases sitting here waiting to go to trial. And none of them are perfect."

Goldberg thinks back over the past 10 years that she has been a prosecutor and says there has been a definite change in the attitude of jurors.

"If I ever felt the earth move beneath my feet," she says, "it was after the O. J. Simpson trial. We all did, as prosecutors. Things changed dramatically after that. The way average people approach the system is totally different. There's a suspiciousness that wasn't there before."

She is loath to criticize the jury that set Eric D. Stennett free, saying only that "no one knows what a jury goes through to reach a decision, except the jury."

Then, she adds: "We have to find a way to make something good come from this. The death of this officer has to stand for something more than this. It's just been too ugly."

Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.

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