Low-key lawyer succeeds in many high-profile cases

$7 million judgment is latest in a string of wins for Pettit

May 31, 2001|By Sarah Koenig and Jim Haner | Sarah Koenig and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

A. Dwight Pettit has just won the biggest civil judgment of his nearly 30-year career, and his mood can best be described as terrifically calm.

Not that Pettit isn't pleased. He is. When a fellow lawyer calls to congratulate him, telling him he has vindicated 17-year-old Eli McCoy, who was unarmed when a police officer shot and killed him, Pettit is gratified.

But flash and fanfare are not part of his style. That's one reason why Pettit -- despite his landmark civil rights cases, his multiple political campaigns, his friendships with Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Carter and his well-known TV ads -- has never been a headliner.

That could be changing, though. The $7 million McCoy verdict Tuesday against a Housing Authority of Baltimore City police officer occurred four months after his surprising success defending Eric D. Stennett against charges that he murdered a police officer by ramming a Ford Bronco into the officer's cruiser.

And it follows the $500,000 settlement he negotiated in 1999 for the family of James Quarles III, who was killed in a nationally publicized standoff with police outside Lexington Market in August 1997.

His next big civil trial, which he's working on with Johnny Cochran, is against the police officer who shot 20-year-old Larry J. Hubbard in the back of the head in East Baltimore, a month and a half before McCoy was killed.

This grim lineup could suggest that Pettit has something against the police. He doesn't, he says.

But he does think the city police force and the state's attorney's office have failed to gain the confidence of the community and to protect residents against bad cops. "In many cases, [the police] have tended to act like an occupying force," he said yesterday. "The folks should have some redress. ... It's about being a voice for those who don't have a voice."

Pettit uses this voice gently in conversation, his nose wrinkling below granny glasses when he laughs. But when he needs to summon rhetorical power, he can.

On Thanksgiving, 1999, the day of Eli McCoy's death, Pettit got a call from someone on the scene in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Walbrook telling him the situation was tense and he should come. When he arrived, about 300 people were shouting at the police, who were struggling to keep control. A detective asked Pettit to address the crowd. "I told them justice would be served. That violence on top of violence wasn't going to help anything," Pettit said. According to McCoy's father, Elton McCoy, the crowd calmed down and dispersed.

Juries have been impressed as well. In one pivotal moment during the Stennett case in January, jurors sat rapt as Pettit deflated a police sergeant on the witness stand for changing his written account of the accident that killed the officer last year.

"Isn't it a fact, officer, on the report of the 20th ... what you wrote then was the truth?" Pettit demanded, his voice rising with indignation.

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

"And wasn't that the truth?" Pettit insisted.

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

At 6-foot-2 and with shoulders like a bookcase, the 55-year-old father and grandfather who tore up the football field on both offense and defense for Howard University retains a physical presence that makes him stand out in a crowd -- and in the courtroom.

But yesterday, back in his North Hilton Street office surrounded by his security cameras, his recent string of high-profile successes seemed remote. Wearing his characteristic monogrammed cuffs, he sat behind a wide, cluttered desk that faces a huge television. (Before big trials, he watches movies over and over. "A Civil Action" preceded the Quarles case.)

Considering Pettit's start in the courtroom, however, his apparent nonchalance is understandable.

His proudest case, the one in which he avenged discrimination against his father, causes Pettit to get teary three decades later -- and helps explain why he has devoted much of his career to fighting injustice.

George D. Pettit vs. the United States was decided in 1973. But it began in 1958, when Pettit's father, an Army engineer, moved his son and wife from Turner Station in eastern Baltimore County to Aberdeen, where Dwight was supposed to start high school.

Integration had begun, but the school refused to take Dwight. His father sued Harford County, and won. In retaliation, the Army refused to promote his father, who worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

After graduation from Howard University Law School in 1970, Pettit, then working at the federal Small Business Administration in Washington, took on his father's case, arguing before the U.S. Court of Claims.

Pettit describes that moment -- walking into the majestic court across from the White House alongside his wife, mother and the father he adored -- as breathtaking. The case, won by a 4-3 decision, helped establish the standard of proof for back-pay awards in discrimination claims. Pettit's father got a promotion and $100,000 from the government.

At one time, Pettit had hoped to continue his activism through politics. After serving as state co-chairman of Jimmy Carter's campaign in 1976, he ran unsuccessfully four times for public office -- for Baltimore state's attorney, for City Council, and twice for Congress. "Obviously, the people of Baltimore consider me a better lawyer than a political candidate," he said. "I never had much luck running for office. But I've done all right in court."

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