A Baltimore grand jury on Monday indicted an Eastern District police officer on murder and handgun charges in the killing of an unarmed man last month outside a Mount Vernon nightclub, while the city's top prosecutor said she might have to drop court cases in which the officer is a witness.

Gahiji A. Tshamba, a 15-year veteran, is scheduled to be arraigned on the two-count indictment, which supersedes earlier charges, on Aug. 4 in Baltimore Circuit Court. If convicted, he would face a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole on the first-degree murder charge, plus a possible 20 additional years if he is also found guilty of using a handgun to commit a felony and crime of violence.

His attorney, Adam Sean Cohen, said Tshamba is "eager" to have his day in court. "He claims his innocence and will reclaim his innocence at trial," Cohen said.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy announced the indictment during a news conference Monday afternoon, an unusual move for the elected official.

Jessamy said she called the news media to counter criticism that her office moved too slowly in authorizing charges against Tshamba.

"I was very, I should say, just disappointed and disturbed with all of the coverage when this incident happened as to how quickly the state's attorney's office was moving, why they were not responding in a certain fashion," Jessamy said.

Jessamy's office approved a warrant for Tshamba's arrest on murder charges seven days after the June 5 shooting, and some critics questioned the delay. On Monday, Jessamy said it was a matter of following the proper procedure and that she now wanted to "educate the public and the media" about her handling of the case.

Jessamy's effort comes days after learning that she faces a challenge in her quest for a fourth term. Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregg Bernstein declared his candidacy for Jessamy's job last week, and has indicated that he will attack her performance in office as he seeks the Democratic nomination.

In an e-mailed statement, Bernstein said "an indictment is one thing, but getting a conviction is something else," adding that Jessamy's office has the lowest conviction rate in the state, a statistic that will likely become a cornerstone of his primary campaign.

Tshamba was connected to three open cases in city court at the time of his arrest. One was resolved by conviction in late June; the other two are scheduled for trial in September. One is an armed robbery case, and the other involves a first-degree assault.

"We will review them and determine if they can proceed without the officer's participation and testimony," Jessamy said. "If they can, we will proceed with those cases. If they cannot, then … those cases may have to be dismissed."

Assistant public defenders assigned to the two defendants in those cases could not be reached Monday.

The grand jury indictment was the last in a series of administrative steps needed to bring Tshamba to trial.

The officer, who's been both decorated and disciplined during his time on the city's force, had been off-duty and hanging out with friends on that Friday night in June into Saturday morning, when he shot a former Marine multiple times at close range.

Tshamba, who turns 37 at the end of the month, was with his buddies in an alley off East Eager Street, near Club Hippo's back door when Tyrone Brown, 32, groped one of Tshamba's female companions, witnesses said.

Brown's family says it was a joke, but Tshamba reacted seriously, according to witnesses, confronting Brown and drawing his service weapon. Tshamba fired 13 rounds, hitting Brown a dozen times in the chest and groin. Brown, who survived military service in Iraq, died less than an hour later.

Cohen said his client made the decision to put himself on duty in response to what he saw as a sexual assault and that Tshamba fired the shots because he was in fear for his life. Jessamy, however, contends that Tshamba wasn't acting in an official capacity.

"It will probably become an issue at trial," she said Monday.

Tshamba, who turned himself in to police on June 13, roughly a day and a half after a warrant was issued for his arrest, is being held without bail.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the indictment against Tshamba was expected and serves as "another example of how the [Baltimore Police Department] is capable of and committed to policing itself. The commissioner is not going to tolerate any … behavior that [affects] the integrity of the agency."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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