Man guilty of killing officer as he lay hurt

Cowdery shot in head during Harford Road undercover case

April 02, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

In a courtroom packed with anxious police officers yesterday, a jury declared Howard "Wee" Whitworth guilty of first-degree murder for firing a bullet into Officer Michael J. Cowdery's head as he lay disabled on an East Baltimore Street in March last year.

Cowdery's father pumped his fist and closed his eyes. His mother clutched her jaw and her shoulders convulsed as she sobbed for her son, the most recent Baltimore officer to die in the line of duty.

"The feeling is euphoric," said Michael J. Cowdery Sr., a Philadelphia police detective who inspired his son to join the force. "The seemingly endless nightmare is finally, finally over."

Whitworth didn't react to the verdict, read in a courtroom guarded by 18 armed sheriff's deputies. Whitworth's mother cried quietly, and a cousin later called the outcome unfair.

Before delivering the verdict, jurors asked Circuit Court Judge Marcella A. Holland for permission to review the videotaped testimony of the admitted prostitute and drug addict who was the only witness to identify Whitworth. Jurors said later in interviews that her testimony was critical to their decision.

Commissioner Edward T. Norris said the verdict was a relief. The department was shaken by the acquittal of Eric D. Stennett last year in the death of another young officer.

"We have an unwritten contract with the public," Norris said. "I send people out every night to risk their lives. They'll risk their lives for the citizens if the citizens do their job. Today, they did."

The state's attorney's office and the Police Department, which sometimes have a contentious relationship, stood together yesterday.

"This is the ultimate in what we do working together," said Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

The lawyer who prosecuted the Whitworth case, Donald Giblin, said he knew the stakes were high.

"In light of the last verdict in the Stennett case, I have to admit, there was a little added pressure," Giblin said.

He already felt pressure, he said, because he has become close to the victim's family. "I have developed a relationship with the Cowderys. And they needed closure."

Cowdery watched every minute of the trial, often with his daughter India. His wife, Constance Cowdery, could not bear to hear the details in court and stayed home. The two prayed all weekend for a guilty verdict.

"Hopefully, no other police officer will have to go through what I went though," Cowdery said. "I hope this sends a clear message to people in the underworld."

Jurors deliberated for 11 1/2 hours over three days. They listened to 2 1/2 weeks of harrowing testimony before they decided Whitworth first shot Cowdery, 31, in the leg, then walked over to him on an empty street and fired a bullet into his head as he lay on the ground.

Cowdery had a degree in economics from Hampton University in Virginia. He joined the police in July 1996 after leaving jobs as a financial consultant and manager of a Philadelphia shoe store.

When Cowdery was killed, he was working a cold, rainy 7 p.m.-3 a.m. shift in March.

He and his three partners - Robert Jackson, Ronald A. Beverly and Tiffany Walker - met at the station and left about 8 p.m. They piled into their unmarked police car, a blue Oldsmobile, wearing street clothes with their badges hanging around their necks on silver chains.

Cowdery drove them to Pulaski Highway, where they ate dinner at Chaps Pit Beef.

Then Cowdery, who lived in an apartment in Parkville, took them to look at a house he wanted to buy in the city, saying he was looking for more room for his son Mathew, 12, when the boy visited from Philadelphia, where he lived with his mother.

Cowdery walked through the house and told them he was going to put in a bid for it the next day.

They started cruising Harford Road, looking for anything suspicious. At a few minutes after 10 p.m. they found it.

They saw two men standing outside of a Chinese carryout, their backs to the street, bent over and fiddling with something. The men looked like drug dealers.

Cowdery cut a quick U-turn, stopped the car in a parking lane, and the four stepped out into the rain. They walked toward the men, their badges extended, saying, "Police."

Beverly and Jackson quickly frisked the men, making sure they were not carrying weapons. The two officers began a field interview, asking the men what they were doing, why they were there.

Minutes later, Rachel Rogers walked out of the carryout, and Cowdery started talking to her.

Walker was standing behind her three partners, keeping an eye on the street.

She saw a man approach from the left, and when he was 10 to 15 feet away, he pulled out a silver handgun.

"Gun!" she screamed. The man fired once.

Cowdery fell onto Rogers' legs.

She pulled herself up and jumped into the carryout. Walker followed.

Beverly bolted across the street. Jackson ran around the corner.

They did not know a bullet had hit Cowdery below his left knee. He was on the ground.

The shooter then walked over to Cowdery, and Cowdery screamed.

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