A visibly relieved James D. Laboard hugged family members Thursday after jurors found the Baltimore County police officer not guilty in the death of the teenager he chased down and fought last June.
Seventeen-year-old Christopher Brown had been with a group of boys who threw a rock at Laboard's door before the off-duty officer found him, and neither side in the case disputed that Brown had died as a result of the ensuing altercation. But a jury decided after a four-day trial that Laboard had not broken the law by placing the teen in the neck restraint that the state argued had killed him.
The officer has not spoken publicly and did not testify. His attorneys declined to comment after the verdict, but had said during trial that he had only been trying to protect himself from a teen resisting arrest.
"There is no evidence that Laboard intended to kill," attorney Ezra S. Gollogly, said in court. "What the state is doing in this case is 20/20 hindsight."
But the verdict left Brown's family in disbelief. His mother, Chris Brown, clutched her daughter as the two wept outside. Christopher Brown had been a rising Randallstown High School junior.
"It shouldn't be this way," said Chris Brown, who had sat outside of the courtroom as the verdict came in but was quickly surrounded by TV cameras. She has been vocal about wanting Laboard, a nine-year-veteran with the Police Department, to serve time.
Laboard, who turns 33 Thursday, had faced a maximum of 10 years in prison. He remains suspended pending an internal investigation, but will again be able to draw a paycheck on his $68,845 salary.
State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said the state agreed with Brown's family that Laboard had used excessive force, but the jury had the ultimate decision.
"This was an incredibly tragic case," Shellenberger said. "Obviously we in the state's attorney's office felt a crime had been committed."
Brown's attorney, Russell A. Neverdon, said he has notified the Baltimore County Police Department that he intends a civil suit over the incident, an action he said would also target Laboard.
Neverdon said he felt the state did not emphasize to jurors that Laboard gave chase and then confronted the teen. He said Brown ran from Laboard and then hid in some bushes, and thus was not an aggressive suspect.
In closing arguments, Deputy State's Attorney Robin Coffin told jurors that Laboard had been enraged when he went after Brown, and had used a neck restraint that was inappropriate for police action. Baltimore County does not train officers in neck restraints, a police academy instructor testified.
"These are not the actions of a well-trained police officer," Coffin said, noting that he had nine years of police training in which he would have been faced with similar, high-stress situations. "He has a right to be angry but not to kill."
She said there was no evidence to show that Brown had made any actions toward the officer that should have prompted him to use deadly force.
Although Laboard told a responding officer that the teen swung at him, testimony from an assistant medical examiner said there was no evidence that Brown had made contact. She said scratches found on Laboard's arm were likely from when the teen tried to pull the officer's arms away from his throat.
But defense attorneys had argued that there was little evidence to show that Laboard was agitated or intended to kill Christopher Brown. The teen died after he had resisted arrest and as the officer was attempting to bring him under control, Gollogly said. The neck restraint Laboard used is considered safe by other police departments, he said.
Gollogly had said that because Laboard asked a neighbor to call 911 showed the officer did not intend to kill Brown.
Without handcuffs or his gun on him, Gollogly said, Laboard used the only tool he had — his weight — to control the athletic teen. He said officers are often forced to make quick decisions when in pursuit of a suspect, pointing out that the officer didn't know whether Brown was armed or whether there were additional suspects nearby.
Jurors heard during the trial from friends who said they had smoked marijuana with Brown on the night that he died. They said that it was his idea to play neighborhood pranks but that he was not the boy who threw a rock at Laboard's door.
Laboard's girlfriend also testified about her efforts to resuscitate the teen. The jury viewed crime scene photos of Brown's lifeless body and heard the frantic 911 calls from an elderly couple who saw Laboard and Brown struggling in their yard.
Judge Jan Marshall Alexander described the trial as "highly charged," and "emotional."
During testimony on Wednesday about the use of force from a Baltimore County police academy instructor, a family member of Brown's burst out that Laboard should have stayed at home instead of chasing the teen. A friend of Laboard's responded to defend him, and both were asked to leave the courtroom.
Laboard did not show much emotion during the trial but had tears in his eyes when the 911 calls were played in court.
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