Federal charges against Stennett

Teen who was cleared in officer's death faces drug, weapons counts

March 22, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore teen-ager who walked free last year after being charged with murder in the death of a city police officer found himself faced with the full weight of the federal court system yesterday as a grand jury indicted him on new drug and weapons charges.

Maryland's new U.S. attorney said he would try the case himself.

The case against Eric D. Stennett, 19, is the first that Thomas M. DiBiagio has publicly claimed, a signal of how high the stakes are in the seemingly routine drug and gun case that grew out of a street corner arrest two weeks ago.

"This is a case that would normally go to a young prosecutor in our office," said DiBiagio, who was sworn into office in September. "But because it has additional pressures on it, and because it will have heightened scrutiny on it, I thought it was only appropriate that I take it on."

Stennett was acquitted in January 2001 of state murder and manslaughter charges stemming from a high-speed car chase that left a young Baltimore police officer dead. Stennett, wearing bulletproof body armor, had led police on the chase in April 2000 that ended with his Ford Bronco plowing into Officer Kevon M. Gavin's police cruiser. Gavin, who was 27 and the father of three young children, was killed in the crash.

No one disputed that Stennett was at the wheel of the Bronco, but he escaped conviction and punishment after a jury in Baltimore Circuit Court determined that investigators had mishandled much of the evidence in the case and voted to acquit. The verdict stunned city leaders and police officials.

At a news conference to announce yesterday's federal indictment, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris appeared with DiBiagio and Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Both said they asked DiBiagio to take the case to federal court, where the teen would likely face stiffer penalties if convicted and where the jury pool tends to be more conservative and more trusting of law enforcement than in the city courts.

"Is it important to the Police Department? Absolutely," Norris said. "You can't dance around it: This is a very important person to us, and we're just glad to see this case go forward."

Jessamy, who came under sharp criticism after her office lost the murder case last year, thanked DiBiagio yesterday "for his willingness to work with our office to do what's best for Baltimore."

A three-count indictment charges Stennett with two counts of possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute and one count of possessing a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime. He could be sentenced to more than 80 years in prison if convicted.

Stennett has been jailed on $500,000 bail since his arrest March 9.

Although it is not unprecedented for a U.S. attorney to try cases, it is rare, largely because of the time-consuming management duties that come with the post.

For DiBiagio, the case against Stennett is in many ways similar to the first one he handled as an assistant federal prosecutor when he joined the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore in 1991. DiBiagio, now 41, worked as a frontline prosecutor for nearly nine years before joining a Washington law firm. He returned to Baltimore as U.S. attorney in the fall.

In his first case, DiBiagio prosecuted Daniel J. Custis, who had been arrested by city police on charges of possessing cocaine, using a firearm in drug trafficking and illegally possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. The jury acquitted Custis of the first two charges, but convicted him on the felon-in-possession charge.

That case, seemingly routine, also wound up with far-reaching implications. Custis' appeal eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the government in ruling that a defendant's prior convictions can be used against him during sentencing.

Stennett's recent arrest occurred after a foot chase with police in West Baltimore. According to police, Stennett ran when he spotted a police cruiser driving along the 1000 block of Druid Hill Ave. just before midnight. The two officers in the car were responding to an anonymous tip about drug dealing and an armed man.

Officer Milton Smith chased Stennett, who fled through McCulloh Homes, a nearby public housing development, and tossed a loaded handgun and plastic bags containing suspected heroin, police said. Smith partially drew his service weapon when it appeared that Stennett was drawing a gun, court records state.

The officers said they did not know who Stennett was until he was cornered and ordered to the ground. When Stennett told the officers his name, according to police reports, one of them remarked that it sounded familiar.

"Yeah, I'm the one," Stennett allegedly said. "When I get out, you'll be taken care of. ... I'll get ya."

Police, who were joined in the case by agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, have said they took extraordinary care to preserve evidence - even hunching over the dropped gun to protect any fingerprints on it from rain until an officer could put on rubber gloves to pick it up.

In Stennett's murder trial last year, his attorney criticized police for picking up a semi-automatic pistol in Stennett's truck the night of the crash with bare hands, possibly obscuring fingerprints. Jurors later said that was a key factor in their decision to acquit Stennett, even though his thumbprint was found on the magazine in the gun.

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