Trial starts for suspect in killing of officer

Defendant could receive death penalty if convicted

January 27, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today in the city's first death penalty case in six years - that of a man charged in the killing of police Detective Thomas G. Newman, who was ambushed outside a Southeast Baltimore tavern in 2002.

Capital punishment is a rarity in Baltimore, where the city's top prosecutor, Patricia C. Jessamy, has sought the death penalty just one other time in her nine-year tenure, even though dozens of cases are eligible each year.

Jessamy would not discuss the Newman case and her decision to seek the death penalty. But she said that as a general rule, her office will seek death for defendants accused of killing a police officer or other "heinous" crimes.

"It's hard to define what [heinous] means," Jessamy said. "But you'll know it when you see it. ... Each case stands on its own."

Defendants Jovan J. House, 21, and Raymond Saunders, 22, are accused of shooting Newman Nov. 23, 2002, and could be executed if convicted. Prosecutors are not seeking death for a third defendant, Anthony A. Brown, 34, who is accused of driving the getaway car.

The cases will be tried sequentially, with House facing trial first, followed by Saunders, then Brown.

Baltimore prosecutors most recently sought the death penalty in 1998. A judge handed a death sentence to confessed serial killer Joseph R. Metheny for the murder of a city woman, but an appeals court overturned the sentence and gave him life without parole.

During House's case, the courtroom is expected to be filled with police officers, many of whom want to see House receive the death penalty if convicted.

Agent Dan Fickus, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said he supports the wishes of Newman's family to pursue death sentences. He also called the case "extremely important" because a police officer was executed.

"It should be shocking to everyone, people should be outraged," Fickus said. "The only reason his life was taken is because he did his job."

Newman, 37, was killed in what prosecutors say is a witness retaliation case.

It began in April 2001 after Newman went to a Cherry Hill gas station to fill up his car. Four men began taunting Newman, who was off duty, and indicated they had guns, according to police.

The men sped away from the gas station and Newman followed. Once in Westport, Newman stopped his car and called 911 for backup. While he was on the phone, one of the men from the gas station came up and fired at Newman's car, hitting him in the neck.

Soon after, several men, including 26-year-old Andre Travers, were arrested in the shooting. About a year later, Newman testified at Travers' trial. In March 2002, Travers was convicted of trying to kill the detective and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Eight months after Travers was convicted, Newman was fatally shot as he walked out of Joe's Tavern in the 1000 block of Dundalk Ave.

Saunders, one of the defendants charged in the case, is Travers' half-brother.

The state's attorney and the police union support capital punishment in this case, but not every person charged with killing a police officer in Baltimore faces the death penalty.

The last person charged with such a crime, Howard Whitworth, was convicted in 2002 of the murder of police Agent Michael Cowdery, 31. Prosecutors did not seek death in that case, and Whitworth was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Donald Giblin, the prosecutor in the Newman and Cowdery cases, did not seek the death penalty during the Cowdery trial because it was unclear whether Whitworth knew he was shooting at a police officer.

In order to seek the death penalty in Maryland, one of several factors or "aggravating circumstances" must be proven. Those include knowingly killing an on-duty police officer or committing another felony, such as rape or kidnapping, at the time of the murder.

Like the Cowdery trial, the Newman case is not clearly eligible for the death penalty because it is uncertain if the detective was on duty when he was shot.

Newman's shift was over, and he was leaving a bar when he was shot, but prosecutors are expected to argue that he assumed his police duties in the moments before he was shot. Newman, the prosecutors contend, was on duty at the instant he saw his assailants with a gun and therefore witnessed a crime in progress.

Jurors in the case will hear arguments and decide the matter during the penalty phase of the case if the defendant is convicted.

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