Stennett plea in U.S. case means prison

City teen was acquitted last year in officer's death

Admits federal gun, drug charges

Sentence in plea deal is 10 years with no parole

July 09, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

Eric D. Stennett, the young Baltimore man acquitted of murder last year in the death of a city police officer, pleaded guilty yesterday to federal drug and gun charges that will send him to prison for 10 years.

The lanky 19-year-old, whose high-profile case became a symbol for problems in the city court system, allegedly boasted, "I'll beat that," when arrested in March on the new charges. But on the day he was to have stood trial, Stennett sullenly admitted his guilt instead.

The plea agreement was welcome closure for city police and prosecutors and for the family of Officer Kevon M. Gavin, who was fatally injured when Stennett's Ford Bronco plowed into his cruiser in a police chase April 20, 2000.

"This puts a very bad guy out," said U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio, who prosecuted the case himself in a signal of the high stakes involved in the seemingly routine drug-and-gun case, which grew out of a street-corner arrest in West Baltimore. "This was a very dangerous young man, and he's out of business."

Attorneys for Stennett had said their client was singled out for federal prosecution because of the earlier case. They also said he would have been unable to get a fair trial in federal court, where the jury pool typically is more conservative than inside the city.

"The problem is the system, and the system was stacked up against him," Charles M. Curtis, a Baltimore defense attorney, said outside court yesterday. "And the only reason it was stacked against him is because of who he is and this high-profile acquittal in state court last year."

Stennett was acquitted Jan. 19, 2001, of murder, attempted murder and vehicular manslaughter charges stemming from the police chase that killed Gavin. Stennett, wearing body armor, had raced from police at speeds up to 104 mph, according to court testimony, in a chase that began with a sidewalk shooting and ended with his Bronco smashing into Gavin's cruiser.

Gavin, 27, was a six-year member of the force and father of three.

No one disputed that Stennett was driving the Bronco, but he escaped conviction after a Baltimore Circuit Court jury determined that police investigators had mishandled much of the evidence in the case and voted to acquit him.

The verdict stunned city leaders and put police and prosecutors under sharp scrutiny.

It also put Stennett back on the street, where police say he quickly returned to the drug trade.

He was arrested more than a year after his acquittal, after a foot chase with police through the McCulloh Homes public housing complex. Police said Stennett tossed a loaded handgun and two plastic bags, one containing 56 vials of crack cocaine and the other holding 28 capsules of fake heroin, or what is known on the street as "burn."

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

"Yeah, I'm the one," Stennett allegedly replied, adding as the officers collected the suspected drug evidence: "Yeah, that's mine," and "I'll beat that."

Stennett appeared to be headed back to state court, but federal prosecutors stepped in to take the case at the urging of Baltimore Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. They wanted Stennett to face tougher penalties in the federal court system, where there is no parole.

"In state court, we probably would have gotten a guilty," Jessamy said. "But a 10-year, no-parole sentence would have been highly unlikely."

DiBiagio said that although the drug and gun possession charges carried maximum sentences much greater than 10 years, Stennett was unlikely to see any more prison time if the case had gone to trial because his only criminal record is as a juvenile.

"We're extremely pleased with the outcome of this case and are happy with the U.S. attorney's commitment to taking predatory criminals off the streets," Norris said yesterday through a spokeswoman.

Stennett will be sentenced Oct. 3 by U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake.

In court yesterday, Stennett gave short, clipped answers as Blake questioned him about the plea agreement. Several city officers watched, along with members of Gavin's family who left court without comment.

"This is a good resolution," said Col. John McEntee, the department's chief of patrol operations. "It's up and down, and it gives the family closure."

In court, Stennett hedged at times. When Blake asked if he was satisfied with his attorneys, he said: "I can't say yes, and I can't say no." He also complained that the plea agreement included information about drugs found after his arrest - even though he was not pleading guilty to charges related to that discovery.

Stennett's mother, Margaret Beatty, said outside of court that her son did not want to plead guilty but did not see another choice.

"It's not what he wanted to do," she said. "He told me he's not guilty, and I believe him."

Stennett's attorneys had begun shaping a defense that closely scrutinized the actions of the officers who arrested him, but they had lost a series of crucial motions to try to suppress the statements Stennett made during his arrest and other evidence, including that he was carrying a gun when he was arrested after the crash that killed Gavin.

The lawyers began working late last week to reach a plea agreement, and Stennett signed it Thursday.

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