Defendant in killing of officer testifies

Man says he walked into scene after shot

March 28, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Howard "Wee" Whitworth, accused of firing a fatal bullet into the head of a Baltimore police officer, faced the jury that will decide his fate and calmly admitted yesterday that he is an addict and a drug dealer but denied killing Michael J. Cowdery last March on a rainy East Baltimore street.

On the last day of testimony in the two-week-long murder trial, defense attorneys took the rare step of putting the defendant on the stand, a risky move that has the potential to convince or dissuade jurors.

Closing statements are expected this morning; jurors are expected to deliberate this afternoon.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors have portrayed Whitworth, 27, as a "cold-blooded cop killer," while defense lawyers contended their client is a victim of mistaken identity.

Cowdery, a 4 1/2 -year veteran of the force and the latest Baltimore officer to be killed in the line of duty, was murdered by a man who shot him in the leg, then walked over to him and shot him above his left ear as he lay disabled on the sidewalk.

"It just doesn't get more vicious than that," said Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris, who watched Whitworth testify yesterday.

Whitworth, who wore a yellow button-down shirt and had his head shaved, told the jury that on the day of Cowdery's murder, he was visiting from North Carolina for his aunt's funeral.

A Baltimore native who attended Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, Whitworth said he went to North Avenue and bought $125 worth of cocaine to sell and "double [his] money." He sat in his uncle's house on Cliftview Avenue and got high all day, snorting heroin and smoking cocaine.

When night came and brought a driving rainstorm, he said, he decided to walk to a liquor store to buy beer and possibly sell some drugs on the way.

That was when he inadvertently walked into a gunfight, Whitworth testified, seconds after Cowdery was shot.

Whitworth was about to turn the corner from Cliftview Avenue, south onto Harford Road, he testified, when he felt a bullet sting his right arm. He spun around and ran toward his uncle's house, he said, which is when an officer came around the corner and chased him, shooting at him until he collapsed.

Contradictory testimony

Whitworth's testimony contradicted earlier statements from other witnesses, one of whom said she saw Whitworth shoot Cowdery in the 2300 block of Harford Road.

The .357 Magnum that experts testified killed Cowdery was found on the ground three feet from where Whitworth collapsed, court documents show.

Whitworth testified that he could not explain how the gun got there and said it was never in his possession. Police recovered no fingerprints from the gun.

Cowdery's father, Michael J. Cowdery Sr., said after the testimony that Whitworth "was not convincing at all."

"He's reaching, but there's nothing for him to reach for," said Cowdery, a 28-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department. "My stomach is in a knot. It's heart-wrenching to hear what happened to your son."

But Whitworth's mother, Vera Handy, called her son's testimony "the truth."

"He's not a violent person," Handy said. "He wouldn't do this. He knows what comes around goes around."

According to prosecutors, the incident started just after 10 p.m. March 12, 2001, when Cowdery and several colleagues were questioning three people outside a Chinese carryout on Harford Road. The plainclothes officers wore police badges around their necks.

A man appeared suddenly and shot Cowdery in the leg from 10 to 15 feet away, then walked over to Cowdery and shot him in the head at contact range.

Detective Ronald A. Beverly, who was with Cowdery that night, testified earlier this week that he and the others scattered after the first shot rang out. When he looked back in the direction of the shot, he said, he saw a man wearing dark clothing lean over Cowdery, then run away.

Beverly gave chase, and the two shot at each other. Beverly was hit in both legs. The man, later identified as Whitworth, sustained five gunshot wounds that nearly killed him, according to medical testimony earlier in the trial.

Beverly said he lost sight of the man for less than two seconds as the man turned the corner from Harford Road to Cliftview Avenue. He said the man he saw on Cliftview was the same man he had chased from Harford Road.

There was no one else running on the street, a prosecutor said.

But Whitworth testified that as he approached Harford Road he saw a man dash by him, who must have been the killer.

"Somebody ran by as I was coming to the corner," Whitworth said. "About the same time, I got shot."

During cross-examination, prosecutor Donald Giblin called the runner a "phantom person."

Prosecution witnesses

Giblin called about two dozen witnesses in his bid to prove Whitworth killed Cowdery, including a ballistics expert who testified that the gun found next to Whitworth was used to kill Cowdery, though no fingerprints were found on the weapon.

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