Defense tactic enrages Cowdery's kin, colleagues

Attorney suggested evidence was planted

April 02, 2002|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN STAFF

Even as friends, relatives and fellow police officers celebrated a guilty verdict yesterday in the trial of the man charged with killing Michael J. Cowdery, they bristled over a defense tactic intended to free defendant Howard "Wee" Whitworth.

Last week, Assistant Public Defender John P. Markus suggested during a 90-minute closing argument that an officer planted the murder weapon next to his client.

Jurors belittled his comments as they deliberated. And outside the courtroom yesterday, Markus' colleagues in the criminal justice system rebuked his words as well.

"Outrageous," said Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris.

"Ludicrous," said a juror.

"Offensive," said a detective who had checked Cowdery's pulse as he lay bleeding on Harford Road late on the night of March 12, 2001.

"A ridiculous statement," said prosecutor Donald Giblin. "A line was crossed with that."

Father is furious

Michael J. Cowdery Sr., father of the 104th officer to be killed in the line of duty, could not describe his relief at the verdict. But his anger was easier to put into words.

"They didn't just step over the line, they jumped over it," said Cowdery, a Philadelphia police detective who attended the trial.

"The public defender's office has little or no regard for the police department. Yes, they're supposed to advocate for the defendants, but there's a point at which you stop."

Yesterday, Markus wouldn't elaborate on his fleeting theory of the crime, introduced amid a rambling statement moments before the trial ended.

Still, his claim of police shenanigans wasn't so far-fetched: Fourteen months ago, a jury acquitted 17-year-old Eric Stennett of killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin after learning that police reports in the case had been doctored and evidence lost.

Norris likened that jury's swift, not-guilty verdict to "a kick in the stomach."

Question of credibility

Insiders saw the decision as indictment of the credibility of Baltimore police, a sign that the word of police officers carried less weight than their mistakes.

The new verdict seemed to erase the old regrets.

Moments after a court clerk read off eight guilty counts for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, weapons and drug charges, news that ordinary folks believed Cowdery's fellow officers traveled fast.

Officers left Judge Marcella A. Holland's courtroom flipping open cell phones.

"It's over. We did it," a uniformed officer whispered fiercely into his palm.

"They convicted him on first-degree murder!" cheered a plainclothes officer assigned to the unit where Cowdery worked.

"Oh, thank God," said Detective Michael Baier, an Eastern District shooting squad investigator who learned about the verdict while vacationing in Florida. "I would have lost total faith in society if they had come back not guilty."

Hoped for signs of life

Baier was there a year ago, among the scores of officers who flocked to Cowdery's side, among many to hopefully check the fallen officer's pulse.

He was there last Thursday as well, choking back anger as Markus suggested Officer Robert Jackson planted evidence.

"I was on the scene in the aftermath, what he said couldn't have got any more offensive," Baier said in disgust.

After the jury filed out of the courtroom, Giblin turned to shake the senior Cowdery's hand, saying, "All right, you can be happy now. Congratulations."

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