City jury clears 2 officers in shooting

Man wounded four times in 1996 had filed civil suit seeking $12 million

Jurors deliberate three hours

Defense says a key point in case was whether panel believed defendant had gun

September 19, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore jury has found a city police officer and a former officer not liable in a $12 million civil lawsuit stemming from a 1996 shooting of a Waverly man.

Officer Kenneth B. Ramberg and former Officer Stephen L. Cohen, both 30, were cleared yesterday of civil charges of assault, battery, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and violating the constitutional rights of Robert J. Howard, also 30.

The Circuit Court jury deliberated three hours over two days before returning the verdicts.

Howard had sought $2 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages in the lawsuit filed in 1998.

"He was relieved," attorney Myron T. Brown said of his client, Ramberg, a seven-year veteran of the Police Department assigned to the Central District. "He thanked the jury for paying close attention to the evidence."

Michael Brown, who helped represent Cohen in the weeklong trial, said his client also thanked jurors for their verdict.

"He's relieved that justice has finally prevailed," Michael Brown said. "This has been hanging over his head basically since 1996."

Cohen, who had been a Baltimore officer for five years when the shooting in West Baltimore occurred, quit the department in 1998 and now owns an electronics business, his attorney said.

Gary F. Stern, Howard's attorney, contended that on Dec. 16, 1996, Howard was out with a male friend when Ramberg approached them in the 1500 block of Madison Ave. Stern said Howard ran from the officer because he was on probation and was afraid he would be arrested before Christmas.

As Ramberg chased him, Cohen pulled up in his police car, the lawyer said, and both officers fired, with four bullets hitting Howard, in the arm, knee and back. Stern said Howard's arms were raised when he was shot.

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 the charges in 1998.

During the civil case against the officers, police offered a markedly different version of events than Howard about the shooting.

The officers stopped Howard because he matched a partial description of an armed man they were searching for, said Eileen Carpenter, who also represented Ramberg.

The officers said he had a gun and fired at them.

Officer Charles Sparenberg, who responded to the shooting on Madison Avenue, testified that he found Howard's gun about a foot away from him on the ground where he collapsed.

Whether jurors believed Howard had a gun proved key in the case.

"That was one of the big issues in the case," Michael Brown said of the gun. "We thought that we proved pretty clearly and convincingly that he did have a gun on him."

The lawyer for Cohen said that despite what he believed to be a strong case, he was uneasy about how jurors might find.

"In recent times, verdicts have come down against police officers which we thought were not merited by the evidence," he said. "So, under those circumstances, you're always concerned that it could happen again."

Efforts to reach Stern for comment after the verdict were unsuccessful.

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