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N.J. officer not guilty of murder in Arundel road rage shooting

HomicideTrials and ArbitrationShootingsRacism

A case focusing national attention on the use of deadly force by off-duty law enforcement ended Wednesday when a New Jersey detective was acquitted of murder in a fatal roadside shooting last year along Route 3 in Millersville.

It took an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury about six hours to find Joseph Lamont Walker not guilty on charges of first- and second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and handgun violations in the death in June 2013 of Lansdowne resident Joseph Dale Harvey Jr.

"The jury was able to see this for what it was — a father who was forced to defend his family, including his wife and his children, who were under attack on the side of the road," said defense attorney Charles N. Curlett Jr. "The prosecution's theory of the case that this was an act of murder ... is simply wrong."

Walker was off duty at the time of the incident, driving home from a family gathering in Odenton, when his car drifted into Harvey's lane after making a turn along Route 3 near Interstate 97. Police reports and testimony indicated Harvey swerved toward Walker's car and called him a racial slur. Harvey was white, Walker is black.

Both men pulled over, and court records say once the vehicles were on the side of the road, the two men confronted one another. Walker, a detective with the Hudson County prosecutor's office in New Jersey, said he identified himself as an officer and showed his badge; other witnesses said they never saw a badge.

As Harvey approached, Walker shot him three times, killing him.

Harvey's sister, Cynthia Horan, 48, said that she's still saddened by the loss of her brother and that events leading to his death remain unclear to her. But she also expressed relief that the trial was over.

"We all have to answer to someone higher than the Annapolis court," Horan said.

The defense team argued that Walker, 41, feared for his own safety and his family's, and had a right to defend them and himself. Walker declined to comment after the verdict. He and his wife, Marie, got into a white SUV and were driven away from the courthouse.

The case prompted a wave of support for Walker from law enforcement officers. His union and other supporters in New Jersey raised money for his defense and made trips to Annapolis during the course of the trial, which began July 21.

It also drew the attention of the New Jersey-based National Police Defense Foundation. Executive director Joseph Occhipinti said Walker's prosecution had "a chilling effect within the national law enforcement community" over concerns that off-duty officers who take police action could be criminally prosecuted for murder.

On Wednesday, Occhipinti applauded the verdict.

The president of the Policemen's Benevolent Association Local 232, Walker's union, said he was "ecstatic" over the ruling. Detective William Caciedo said he knows Walker on a personal and professional basis, describing him as a family man who would often skip social outings with colleagues to spend more time with his wife and children.

Caciedo said it was difficult to watch the trial proceedings, adding that Walker is "not the man that was depicted by the prosecutor. That's not the Joseph Walker I know."

He said the union will work to reinstate Walker in his detective position — he was suspended without pay following his arrest — and investigate whether he can receive back pay for the year he's been off the job.

"We're ready to do our part," Caciedo said.

While Walker's supporters lauded the verdict, Mark Anthony, a 38-year-old Glen Burnie resident who had been friends with Harvey since their days at Old Mill High School in Millersville, said he was disheartened.

"It feels like Joe's passed all over again," he said. Anthony rejected defense allegations that Harvey was the aggressor, saying his friend was "a man with a heart of gold."

"Joe was a commercial truck driver," he said. "He's used to people cutting him off. He has more of a tolerance for that."

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Anne Colt Leitess expressed disappointment in the acquittal, saying Walker could have defused the situation by calling 911 or simply driving away.

"He had many, many options," Leitess told reporters outside the courthouse. "At the end of the day, I am concerned that Mr. Walker, as a law enforcement officer, is a very aggressive person."

Walker's attorney's issued a statement reiterating claims they made before the trial that the assistant state's attorney and a Maryland state trooper presented misleading or incomplete testimony to the grand jury that indicted Walker, including omitting the fact that Harvey had been drinking before the encounter. Toxicology samples 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.

Walker's attorneys also said that during jury selection, prosecutors used seven of their 10 challenges to strike African-Americans from the jury.

The judge in the case, Judge Michael Wachs, previously ruled there was no prosecutorial misconduct, and Leitess rebutted any allegations of impropriety, saying she was pleased by the work done by prosecutors in the case.

Walker's lawyers also followed the verdict with a request for a grand jury investigation of Adam Pidel, a passenger in Harvey's car at the time of the incident. They said either Harvey or Pidel threw an energy drink at the Walkers' van, and they allege that Pidel also used racial slurs during the incident.

The state's attorney's office said there are no plans to prosecute Pidel. "There is no evidence Mr. Pidel committed any crime," spokeswoman Heather Stone said in an email.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Tim Pratt and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

nadavis@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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