Police not liable in man's death, court rules

December 30, 2006

Maryland's second-highest court threw out a half-million-dollar civil judgment yesterday against two Baltimore police officers who were held liable in the 2000 in-custody death of a 46-year-old man in an incident that sparked protests outside City Hall.

The Court of Special Appeals ruled that the family of the dead man, Joseph Wilbon, did not notify city officials that they intended to sue within the 180 days required by law. The judges said a Circuit Court judge erred by granting an exception allowing the suit to go forward.

Allen T. Eaton, a Washington-based attorney who represents Wilbon's family, said he planned to appeal to the Maryland Court of Appeals. "We're disappointed, of course," Eaton said. "We don't agree with the decision."

Wilbon, who lived in North Baltimore, died shortly after his arrest June 5, 2000, in the 700 block of Bartlett St. after witnesses told officers he might have been breaking into cars. Police said he became incoherent as he was being booked on a larceny charge at the Central Booking and Intake Center and died at Mercy Medical Center.

At the time, a police spokesman said there was no sign of trauma on the man's body, but relatives said they saw bruises on his face and body as they prepared his remains for burial. They filed a brutality complaint with police four days after his death.

Family members argued in their wrongful death lawsuit that delays in getting treatment for Wilbon led to his death. The Court of Special Appeals ruling notes that officers at first resisted taking Wilbon to the hospital but relented at the urging of a supervisor and that Wilbon suffered a seizure while sitting in the hospital waiting room as paperwork was being filled out.

According to yesterday's ruling, Wilbon died of a heart attack attributed to past cocaine use, and cocaine was found in his urine during his autopsy.

Family members sued city police June 2, 2003, naming Officer Jeffrey E. Mathena Jr. and trainee Franklin Hunsicker. Lawyers for the family notified the city solicitor of their intent to sue six weeks after the 180-day requirement had expired.

The attorneys argued, and a state judge agreed, that they should be excused from the 180-day rule. They said city officials were aware a lawsuit was likely because family members had filed an official complaint with police and another statement to the department's civilian review board.

The Court of Special Appeals disagreed, saying that "the trial court abused its discretion in finding good cause to waive the notice requirement."

A city police spokesman said that Hunsicker is now a detective on the police force with the special investigations division and that Mathena is not on the current roster.

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