Man shot by 2 officers takes them to court

He seeks $12 million in damages from 1996 incident in Baltimore

September 13, 2001|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Two city police officers are defending themselves in Baltimore Circuit Court this week against brutality charges brought by a city man they shot and wounded during a chase nearly five years ago.

The civil trial, which began Monday and resumed yesterday afternoon, pits the credibility of citizen witnesses against that of the police, since the two sides have offered radically different versions of the incident on the night of Dec. 16, 1996.

Robert J. Howard, 20, claims the officers, Kenneth B. Ramberg and Stephen L. Cohen, shot at him as he ran from them, unarmed, in the 1500 block of Madison Ave. in West Baltimore. Howard claims his hands were raised when he was wounded.

He had been out with a male friend when Ramberg approached them, Howard's lawyer, Gary Stern, said. He ran because he was on probation and was afraid he would be arrested before Christmas, Stern said.

As Ramberg chased him, Cohen pulled up in his police car. Both officers fired, and four bullets hit Howard, in the arm, knee and back. Howard spent 21 days at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, and then 16 months in jail awaiting a criminal trial on assault and handgun charges brought by the officers. A jury acquitted Howard of those charges in 1998.

Howard is suing the officers for assault, battery, false imprisonment and for violating his constitutional rights, among other counts, and asking for $12 million in damages.

But police say they had stopped Howard, because he matched a partial description of an armed man they were searching for, said Eileen Carpenter, a lawyer for Ramberg. As Howard was running away, he pulled a gun out from his ankle area, pointed it at them and repeatedly pulled the trigger, the lawyer said in her opening statement Monday.

Police say they retrieved a gun at the scene, but witnesses say they saw no gun on Howard.

Yesterday, Carroll Braxton of the 1400 block of Madison Ave. told jurors he was in his apartment across the street when he heard screeching tires and then looked out to see Howard running. He heard shots, he said, and then saw Howard collapse. Police kicked Howard when he was on the ground, he said.

Lawyers for the officers questioned Braxton's memory, pointing out discrepancies between his testimony and a prior statement. But Braxton, whose father was a police officer, was firm about his recollection of Howard's hands, which he insisted held no gun.

"I can't tell you if his shoes were polished. I can't tell you if his clothes were ironed. But I can tell you he didn't have anything in his hands," he said. "That's the one constant in this deposition."

Cohen was a five-year police veteran when the incident occurred. He is no longer a police officer. Ramberg, a two-year veteran at the time, is an active patrol officer.

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