Trial begins on lawsuit by Baltimore man sprayed, yanked down by police during riots

Larry Lomax strode toward the Baltimore police officers, his hands balled, shouting, “Arrest me! Arrest me! I’m right here.”

Two did. Lt. Christopher O’Ree doused him with a spray canister and Sgt. Keith Gladstone yanked him to the street. Whether the officers acted within reason was put to jurors Wednesday at the start of a trial on Lomax’s lawsuit.

The 26-year-old Baltimore man has sued the two officers, accusing them of battery and acting with excessive force. Lomax’s arrest May 2, 2015, was filmed and became an enduring scene from the riots that engulfed the city after the death of Freddie Gray.

“He doesn’t punch. He doesn’t kick. He doesn’t spit. He doesn’t hurt anything,” said Jason Downs, Lomax’s attorney. “Lt. O’Ree comes from behind the line and attacks.”

The trial began in Baltimore Circuit Court with attorneys offering disparate accounts of Lomax’s actions.

Downs told jurors that Lomax rode a bus to join the peaceful protests, that he was overcome with emotion and crying, that he came armed only with words.

“He feels his head snap back,” Downs said, and clapped his hands in the courtroom. “He feels his body slam on the ground.”

Attorney Neil Duke represented the officers and described Lomax’s actions as a provocation. He said Lomax refused police orders to leave. At 5-foot-5, 230 pounds, and with a “look of fury,” Lomax was “a pretty scary dude,” Duke told jurors.

As seen on film of the arrest, Lomax wears a black T-shirt with white lettering: “[Expletive] The Police.”

“He’s screaming. He’s carrying on,” Duke said. “What was wrong with him?”

The attorneys disagreed further on the chemical blasted in Lomax’s face. Duke told jurors it was pepper spray. Downs insisted it was tear gas and intended to be sprayed from at least 18 feet away to disperse crowds.

“You don’t spray someone at point-blank range with this chemical because it’s dangerous,” Downs told jurors.

Both attorneys said they will present evidence to support their claims about the spray. The trial is scheduled for five days.

The spray drenched Lomax’s face, blinding him, filling his mouth and nose. The burn lingered for 21 days, Downs said, while Lomax was jailed.

A jury acquitted Lomax of disorderly conduct five months after his arrest. He had pleaded guilty to the one charge, but appealed to the Circuit Court. Prosecutors dropped additional charges against him.

Lomax has sued the two veteran officers — Gladstone has since retired from the department — for at least $75,000. His lawsuit is the first to reach to trial from among several men who sued Baltimore police after their arrests in the riots. The men have said officers caused them abrasions, contusions, nerve damage, swelling and internal injuries. Hundreds of people were arrested during the unrest and the curfew, but many were released without charges. Many others saw their charges dropped.

Lomax’s lawsuit centers on a question of judgment. As his other attorney, Wylie Stecklow, told the judge:

“We have to figure out, what would a reasonable police officer have done?”

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Tim_Prudente

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