Police get blame for verdict, not jurors

March 14, 2001|By Gregory Kane

LINDA HAWKES is a juror, in the purest, most judicial meaning of the word. She went to court and heard evidence in a case. She took copious, detailed notes. She evaluated and weighed the evidence. She then came to the conclusion - as she had been charged to do by the judge - that the state hadn't proven its case.

Hawkes is one of the 12 jurors who voted in January to acquit Eric Stennett of murdering Baltimore police Officer Kevon Gavin. Stennett was charged with firing shots at some fellas before taking off in a Bronco and leading police on a high-speed chase. The Bronco crashed into Gavin's police cruiser.

The case appeared to be open and shut, but as Sun reporters Jim Haner and John O'Donnell showed in an article Sunday, Baltimore police committed so many flagrant errors in the case that they made the Keystone Kops look like Phi Beta Kappa material.

Haner and O'Donnell's article revealed a pattern of mishandling and destroying evidence, conflicting reports and possible police abuse in holding Stennett for nearly three days before letting the then-17-year-old talk to his lawyer or his mother.

Hawkes and other jurors "were livid," Haner and O'Donnell reported, when that information came to light. Well, they should have been. It smacked of yet another incident in a long Baltimore police history - dating back at least to the notorious Veney raids of 1964 - of ignoring the rights of citizens and suspects.

Baltimoreans, black and white, hear about these things.

They tend to remember them when the city sends them that huge green envelope extending the kind invitation to mosey on down to the Circuit Court and serve jury duty.

Such incidents don't necessarily mean that jurors will go in predisposed not to believe police officers, but they won't be disposed to believe them, either.

Gary Bernstein, a Towson attorney, wrote Commissioner Ed Norris about a similar event in September. Here are portions of his letter:

"Dear Commissioner Norris:

"Last night I had my personal introduction to the new police procedure instituted by you since your arrival. As a former prosecutor in Baltimore City, I found it outrageous and that it smacked of something you'd expect in Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union.

"In August of this year I was contacted by the Cheatham family regarding an investigation of a shooting that allegedly took place on their property. I spoke to [a detective] assigned to Northwestern District Investigative Services. I explained that I represented Nathaniel Cheatham and would surrender him anytime a warrant was obtained. ...

"Last night I received a call from my client's mother from the public pay phone at Northwestern District advising that she, Nathaniel and her 14-year-old son Dwayne had been taken from their home in Reisterstown and transported to Northwestern. I asked if anyone was under arrest and she told me she was not sure.

"I then called [the detective] and he told me he had both her sons and that no one was under arrest. I advised him Ms. Parrott wanted her sons back and wanted to leave the station and he told me no problem, it would be done immediately. I called Ms. Parrott back at the public phone and heard [the detective] come into the hallway and speak to her. She asked for her children and I repeated my conversation with [the detective] and told her to relay it to him. Ms. Parrott told [the detective] she was talking to her lawyer and repeated what I said. [The detective] then came over, took the public phone from her hand and hung it up."

Bernstein called that pay phone several more times, and someone hung up on each occasion. The last time, Bernstein said, someone laughed into it and hung up.

The same thing happened when he called on his cell phone, which he used while en route to the Northwestern District.

Bernstein concluded his missive to Norris by suggesting that city officers bone up on procedure and let the grand jury force reluctant witnesses to testify.

Norris had his department's internal affairs unit investigate Bernstein's allegations.

Such is not the way to win hearts and minds. No wonder the proportion of racial minorities who say they trust police doesn't even reach 40 percent, according to data cited in Haner and O'Donnell's article.

It seems that, in Baltimore at least, the cops are hell-bent on giving us a reason not to trust them.

So when a Linda Hawkes - or a Vivian Moore, one of her co-jurors in the Stennett case - goes to serve jury duty, she isn't supposed to have any biases in favor of police officers.

Heck, in Baltimore, depending on class, neighborhood and, yes, race, you almost can't.

In the matter of Eric Stennett, it appears that Hawkes, Moore and 10 others did their duty. They didn't fail Kevon Gavin.

His fellow officers did.

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