Lisa Goldberg heard the police officers before she saw them - angry, disbelieving voices echoing in the marble hall outside Courtroom 201. They were waiting for her. With questions she could not begin to answer.
The workaholic mother of one had been through many rough scenes in her 10 years as a Baltimore prosecutor. She had held many hands, consoled many a murder victim's family.
But nothing quite like this.
"What, they didn't believe us?" one of the officers gasped as she stepped into the hallway. "The jury didn't believe us!"
Moments earlier, in one of the more incendiary verdicts in years, a Circuit Court jury had acquitted Eric D. Stennett of murder - clearing the gangly 17-year-old chronic offender in the horrific death last April of Baltimore police Officer Kevon M. Gavin.
Their verdict brought forth a torrent of recrimination. Jurors were criticized by public officials, lambasted on talk radio and excoriated by co-workers and their own families for putting an alleged cop-killer back on the street.
Now, seven weeks later, the jurors say enough is enough. They want it known that they did not reach their verdict haphazardly. And they are tired of being second-guessed by authorities who never set foot in the courtroom.
The criticisms "really sting," says Vivian Moore, 35, an MTA bus driver and church deaconess. "If you don't give them what they want, you're a bad person. ... We're not bad people. We're human beings."
In kitchen table conversations and late-evening talks in their living rooms, six of the 12 average citizens who decided the case on Jan. 19 described their experience to The Sun in recent days.
For the record, they say, there was little question that Stennett was responsible for Officer Gavin's death. Nonetheless, they felt they had no choice but to let him go.
It may be difficult to understand for those who have never sat through a trial. But in the hands of an expert defense lawyer, jurors say, hairline cracks in the evidence can become ruinous fissures, especially when police commit serial errors that fracture the proof from beginning to end.
In the realm of law, all it takes is a "reasonable doubt." And there were doubts aplenty in the case of State vs. Stennett.
But an exhaustive review of court records - and interviews with the trial's major participants - reveal other forces at work in the Stennett case.
Experts say that urban jurors, particularly African-Americans, have grown increasingly willing in recent years to acquit defendants they believe are guilty if they detect any abuse of police power.
Prosecutors, who despair that their cases now must be flawless to win, increasingly find themselves facing jurors for whom police misconduct is an all-too-common experience.
"In this day and age, a person of color is going to have mistrust of the police because these things happen," says juror Linda Hawkes, a 48-year-old health claims processor who says her son once missed a funeral after being detained by police without reason.
In Baltimore, a computer survey by The Sun of 300 Circuit Court verdicts over a two-year period found that juries threw out more than 40 percent of criminal cases that came before them.
Tom Munsterman of the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit judicial think tank in Williamsburg, Va., says similar numbers are emerging in cities all over the country.
Paul Butler, a black former federal prosecutor and professor at George Washington University Law School, says African-Americans have become "extremely sensitive to certain patterns of testimony or to lapses in accepted police procedure."
"And they're far less likely to overlook it, or to give police the benefit of a doubt, especially if there's compound errors."
There was no lack of errors in the case against Eric D. Stennett - and at least a few jurors thought they detected something worse.
The runaway Bronco
The central events of April 20th were hardly in dispute.
At 8:04 that night, a tan Ford Bronco with darkly tinted windows stopped in front of an abandoned house at 2028 Wilkens Ave. in Southwest Baltimore near Carroll Park. On the steps, two men sat talking and drinking beer with their backs to the boarded-up front door.
The driver of the Bronco, a thin, black male, got out, took a few steps toward the curb, pulled a heavy, chrome-plated handgun and opened fire.
As the intended victims ran for cover, the gun spit sparks and smoke and rained empty brass shell casings in the middle of the street.
Four police officers, members of a crime-suppression detail who happened to be nearby in an unmarked car, turned toward the sound of the gunfire in time to see the shooter blaze away his last few rounds of ammunition before walking back to the Bronco.
The officers whipped in behind the truck. But as they piled out of their car to arrest the gunman, the Bronco bolted.
Within seconds, police radios all over West Baltimore were crackling with a description of the tan Ford truck and its heavily armed driver, and squad cars began converging on a wedge-shaped grid north of the park known as Sector 2.
Sucking a growing procession of cruisers along in its wake, the Bronco tore through a red light, narrowly missed a passing car and barreled across a grass median on Martin Luther King Boulevard before veering west onto Lombard Street.
One officer glanced at his speedometer: 80 miles an hour.
"He's pulling away from us like we're standing still," he told his partner.
Seconds later, two senior officers - a sergeant and a lieutenant - rolled into position on a cross street a few blocks away, timing their next move to the location reports pouring in over their radio. When the Bronco was a block away, Sgt. David Wimmer gunned his patrol car left onto Lombard to take up a position in front of the approaching truck.
No sooner had Wimmer finished his turn than the Bronco shot past, still gathering speed. In a split second, it pulled away at 90 miles an hour ... 95 ... 100 ... 104.
In the seat next to Wimmer, Lt. Mary Eilerman suddenly got a sick feeling in her stomach. Two blocks ahead, she saw a disaster in the making.
At that moment, Officer Kevon Gavin, 27 - a six-year veteran of the force, with a wife and three small children - was pulling his 1995 Chevy Caprice cruiser into the intersection at Gilmor Street as if to block the road.
"He came around that corner in almost slow motion," Eilerman would later testify, then turned left onto Lombard, directly into the path of the truck.
In his car trailing the Bronco, Wimmer had time to see the emergency lights swirling on the roof of Gavin's car up ahead. He heard Gavin's siren and thought he saw the Bronco sideswipe a parked car as it raced toward Gilmor Street.
Then, in the blink of an eye, the Bronco rocketed into the left-front of Gavin's car and burst into flames, plowing the cruiser along Lombard in a maelstrom of shattered glass, sheered chrome, twisting steel and burning rubber.
More than 100 feet later, the ball of smoke and metal finally came to rest, with the burning Bronco piled up on the hood of Gavin's cruiser and the officer trapped in the wreckage.
Frantic, Wimmer, Eilerman and a dozen more officers rushed to their injured comrade. Inside the squad car, they found Gavin pinned under the dashboard - unconscious, bloody and barely breathing. The officers threw their shoulders into the demolished Bronco in a vain attempt to lift it off their friend.
"Signal 13! Signal 13! Officer down!" someone yelled into a radio transmitter.
Officers reached inside the mangled car, desperately ripping at Gavin's clothing and bulletproof vest, trying to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Someone kicked in the right-rear window and Officer Frank Jarrell Jr. squirmed inside - clawing his way over the cruiser's torn upholstery before realizing that the situation was hopeless.
"It was the most desperate, frustrating situation," Eilerman later testified.
The street was by then clogged with patrol cars, lights whirling, sirens screaming. Eilerman went from officer to officer, grabbing them by the shoulders, shaking them, demanding that they move their cruisers and clear the way for emergency equipment.
"I saw grown men ... standing in the middle of the road and a couple more into the park, standing there, sobbing uncontrollably," Eilerman recalled.
Within minutes, paramedics and firefighters were crawling over the wreckage, clamping an oxygen mask on the injured officer and maneuvering heavy rescue gear into place to tear the roof off the cruiser.
It would take them an hour to extract Gavin from the car. It would take Gavin 20 hours to die.
Meanwhile, several officers had approached the Bronco.
Inside, they found a box of ammunition, a Smith & Wesson 10 mm semiautomatic pistol, a blue baseball cap bearing the logo of the Indianapolis Pacers basketball team and a scrawny 17-year-old named Eric D. Stennett with a record of drug arrests going back to his 13th birthday.
No one else.
No possibility of mistaken identity.
No room for a shadow of doubt.
Then one of the officers reached in and grabbed the pistol with his bare hand - and the case of State vs. Stennett began to unravel.
Amid the pandemonium at Lombard and Gilmor streets that night, at least three key pieces of evidence would be mishandled. And as time wore on - as hours gave way to days, and days turned into weeks - it only got worse.