Arundel road-rage murder trial draws wide interest

  • Maryland State police say that N.J. police officer Joseph Walker (left) shot and killed Joe Harvey (right) during a traffic dispute.
Maryland State police say that N.J. police officer Joseph Walker… (Maryland State Police Photo…)
July 20, 2014|By Pamela Wood, The Baltimore Sun

When a New Jersey police officer goes on trial Monday in Annapolis in the killing of a Lansdowne man during a road rage incident, he won't face the first-degree murder charge alone.

Joseph Lamont Walker, 41, will have a defense team that includes a high-powered New York attorney behind him, as well as a long blue line of fellow officers, police fraternal organizations and union officials.

Facts of the June 2013 case are undisputed: Walker shot and killed Joseph Dale Harvey Jr. along Route 3 near Millersville after the two pulled their vehicles over following an angry exchange.

A grand jury has alleged it was first-degree murder. Walker and his supporters say it was self-defense, and some claim the case is an example of Maryland police bias, prosecutorial misconduct and — in the eyes of a New Jersey newspaper columnist — "Southern-fried racism." Walker is black; Harvey was white.

In New Jersey, the law enforcement community has rallied around Walker, with bowling and golf tournaments to raise defense funds, car pools to shuttle supporters to the Annapolis courtroom and T-shirts with the slogan, "In this family, no one fights alone."

Walker, his wife and children had attended a barbecue at his sister's home in Odenton on June 8, 2013, and were heading home to New Jersey.

Harvey had been eating crabs and drinking beer with friends, and was driving to a Pasadena bar for a bachelor party.

About 8:30 p.m., the two wound up swerving and yelling at each other after their cars nearly collided on the highway. Both got out of their vehicles on the side of the road. Walker shot Harvey three times, killing him. Toxicology samples later indicated Harvey's blood-alcohol level was 0.07 to 0.08 percent. In Maryland, 0.08 percent is the threshold for driving under the influence.

Who started the altercation and whether Walker acted in self-defense are in dispute. Harvey's friend and passenger, Adam Pidel, told state troopers that Walker's van crossed into their lane as both turned from Route 175 onto northbound Route 3.

Transcripts indicate Walker told a 911 operator that Harvey started the dispute and that Harvey had called him a racial slur. Pidel also told police his friend used the slur, and said he saw Walker flash his gun before the vehicles stopped.

Walker says he identified himself as a police officer. Pidel says he didn't hear what Walker said, but never saw a badge or had any indication he was a cop.

"Do I think there's going to be a fight? Yeah," Pidel told troopers. "Do I think somebody's going to get shot? No."

Passing motorists caught portions of the events, according to court documents and transcripts. Some saw the vehicles swerving. Others saw the men on the side of the road. One witness told a trooper: "I just had a feeling … it wasn't going to end good."

Detective William Caicedo, president of the New Jersey Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 232 — the union that represents Walker — said Walker has been unfairly portrayed as an aggressive officer when he was just trying to protect his family.

"It's not the Detective Joseph Walker we know. … This is not a guy who is a violent individual," said Caicedo, who works with Walker in the Hudson County prosecutor's office.

"This is a man that has a support system, has a large faction of people that believe in him," he said.

The union, along with the National Police Defense Foundation, has helped fund Walker's defense and pay his bills. Walker was suspended from his job without pay after the was criminally charged with first-degree murder and weapons charges.

The defense hasn't come cheap. The national foundation connected Walker with New York City defense attorney Michael T. Cornacchia, whose roster of past clients includes one of the Duke University lacrosse players exonerated in a high-profile sexual assault case in 2006. Walker's team also includes attorneys from a Baltimore firm.

For months, Walker's team sought publicity for the case, conducting interviews with reporters in Maryland and New Jersey. In April, his attorneys tried to have the case dismissed and sent out a news release saying Maryland police withheld information and even misled the grand jury about the events along Route 3.

Specifically, attorneys said prosecutors and a state trooper caused "irreparable prejudice" against their client when they told the grand jury that all witnesses said they saw Harvey stop and raise his hands before he was shot. Prosecutors later acknowledged that not all witnesses saw the shooting.

Circuit Judge Michael Wachs rejected the motion to dismiss and slapped a gag order on attorneys on both sides, ordering them not to talk to the news media.

While law enforcement officials have rallied behind Walker, Harvey's family and friends have quietly mourned. A roadside vigil was held shortly after his death. Harvey's funeral and burial were private, and a memorial Facebook page has had little activity.

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