In shooting death, it's a case of credibility

August 26, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

On Aug. 21, the day Kevin Cooper would have turned 15, his mother told those who attended a memorial vigil in his honor about the need for a police presence in Southwest Baltimore.

"We're not going to say we don't need them," Greta Carter told the group of mourners gathered in the 300 block of Font Hill Ave., "because we do need them."

That's quite a remark from a woman whose son was fatally shot by a Baltimore police officer only nine days before.

"We need them," Carter continued, "but we need them in a positive way. Not to be corrupt liars."

And with that statement, Carter set the tone for what will be, at the very least, a civil battle between her lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, and lawyers for the city. That battle, which Pettit says should also involve criminal charges against the officer who shot Kevin, pits Carter's credibility against that of the police. In some American cities, that might be a slam dunk for the police.

But not in this town.

Carter's account of the events that led to Kevin's death and police accounts differ so widely that it's hard to believe that both parties are describing the same incident.

Police say they received a call that Kevin was assaulting his mother. Two officers responded. One left after the situation appeared to have cooled down. The other, Officer Roderick Mitter, stayed to take information for a report.

According to police, at that point Kevin "became agitated" and struck Mitter in the head with a broom handle, breaking it in two. Mitter used Mace on Kevin, which had no effect. It was only after Kevin advanced on the officer with the broken broom handle that Mitter fired, police say.

Carter said that she and Kevin were arguing; he never assaulted her. Carter said -- and here is one of the few points on which her account and the police account agree -- that the situation had calmed down. But Carter said it was Mitter who went upstairs after Kevin and started hounding and taunting him. Carter said she was between Mitter and Kevin -- holding her infant granddaughter in her arms -- when Kevin started unscrewing the handle of a plastic dustpan.

Mitter then sprayed Kevin with Mace and shot him. Carter said she was stunned at the shooting and asked Mitter why he'd done it.

"It's OK," she said Mitter told her, "I only shot him in the shoulder."

Carter said that she wanted to go with Kevin to the hospital but that homicide detectives forced her to go instead to the Central District headquarters and make a statement. Was Carter's detention, however brief, an arrest?

"I think it [was]," said Pettit. "She didn't have a choice. She didn't have an option. She wanted to go to the hospital. At the same time, they [homicide detectives] are telling her her son's OK."

Carter repeated what she told Pettit.

"The detective said I had to make a statement," Carter said. "They wouldn't allow me to use the phone. They said they had a connection with the hospital and that everything was just fine -- that he was just shot in the shoulder. At no time did they say my son was deceased."

Margaret Mead is a Baltimore defense lawyer who's certainly no apologist for the Police Department. But she believes that Carter's brief detention to give a statement was probably legal.

"It's probably not illegal," Mead said. "With most witnesses in any kind of crime, you want to get their stories as quickly as possible. She was probably temporarily detained as a material witness. Their argument is probably going to be that she was free to leave at any time."

I asked Carter if police ever used those words: that she was "free to leave any time."

"They never gave me that option," Carter replied.

Mead said that from a public relations standpoint, it might have been better for homicide detectives to let Carter go to the hospital first. And this police department could use some good PR. Pitting the credibility of a department that has consistently had bad PR against the credibility of a woman who's been a correctional officer for 17 years could be, at best, problematic for police.

Add to that the fact that this happened in the Southwestern District, the most troubled district in a troubled department. The most embarrassing Baltimore Police Department scandal in recent memory, the alleged "flex squad" transgressions, took place in the Southwestern.

Then there's the lawsuit alleging illegal arrests, another lawsuit filed by a fired police commissioner and allegations from some officers who say the department has an arrest quota policy while police brass claim it doesn't. Carter's credibility, stacked up against the department's, starts to look at least plausible, despite some skepticism about her claims.

One of those skeptics is Mead, who said she doubts that homicide detectives deliberately misled Carter about Kevin's death.

"I would be surprised if they did that," Mead said. "My experience is they're pretty good in that regard."

Matt Jablow, a department spokesman, said that Carter told officers at the scene that she would go down to headquarters and make a statement if they took her to the hospital afterward.

"That's exactly what they did," Jablow said, adding that the detectives who interviewed Carter didn't know Kevin had died.

A jury will ponder all these claims, as well as one Carter made after I asked her whether, in her 17 years as a corrections officer, anyone had ever had any reason to doubt her credibility or integrity.

"Never," she answered.

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