Stennett defense may rest on police

Attorneys plan to query officers on arrest events in federal drug, gun case

He was acquitted in police death

April 12, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Attorneys for Eric D. Stennett gave the first hint of his possible defense on federal drug and weapons charges yesterday, saying they wanted to question Baltimore police at a routine detention hearing next week about the events surrounding the teen's arrest.

The actions of city police are expected to be closely scrutinized in the case against 18-year-old Stennett, who was acquitted last year in the death of a Baltimore officer - a verdict denounced by city police officials.

After Stennett's arrest March 9, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris urged federal authorities to prosecute the relatively routine drug case in U.S. District Court, where Stennett could face stiffer penalties if convicted. But police also have said they took extraordinary care after the arrest to preserve evidence and to avoid any appearance of retribution.

Deputy Federal Public Defender Joseph A. Balter, who said during a brief court appearance yesterday that he might call the two arresting officers to testify as early as next week, declined to comment on what issues he planned to raise. In court, Balter asked government prosecutors to compel the two officers to appear in court Monday for Stennett's detention hearing.

U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who is prosecuting the case himself, declined to do so. DiBiagio said he did not need the officers to testify for the government because the events surrounding the arrest were so brief that he could summarize them himself for the judge who will decide whether Stennett can be released on bail.

"This is a three-minute event," DiBiagio said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar told Balter that he could subpoena the two officers and that he would take appropriate steps if they avoided being served with court papers or failed to appear.

Yesterday's hearing was Stennett's first appearance in federal court. The tall, lanky teen-ager, who stood for most of the brief hearing, wore faded jeans and a sweat shirt.

Stennett did not enter a plea and said little during the hearing other than to acknowledge the charges against him. Bredar appointed the public defender's office to the case after Stennett said he was unsure whether his family planned to hire a private attorney to represent him.

In his earlier high-profile case, Stennett was acquitted on state murder and manslaughter charges stemming from a high-speed car chase in April 2000 that killed Officer Kevon M. Gavin. Stennett, wearing bulletproof body armor, was accused of leading police on a chase that ended with his Ford Bronco plowing into Gavin's cruiser.

Stennett escaped conviction after a jury in Baltimore City Circuit Court determined that investigators had mishandled much of the evidence in the case.

Stennett's recent arrest occurred after a foot chase with police in West Baltimore, where officers said they saw him drop a bag that contained crack cocaine and discovered he had a .38 caliber revolver when they caught up with him.

The arresting officers said in police reports that they did not know who Stennett was until they asked him his name and one of the officers remarked that it sounded familiar. Stennett allegedly responded, "`Yeah, I'm the one.'"

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