The man accused of wounding a Howard County police officer in a daytime shootout along Route 1 in North Laurel last year said he was acting in self-defense, his lawyer told a Howard County jury Tuesday.
Stephon Prather, 30, is facing three counts each of first- and second-degree attempted murder, as well as assault and felony gun charges in connection with the Oct. 23 shootout involving three county police officers. The exchange resulted in the hospitalization of officer Steven Houk, who was shot once in the abdomen.
Houk, who had been on the county police force for two years, was released from the hospital less than a week after the shootout.
Prather, who was shot twice by police, was found the following morning after an extended police manhunt. He is believed to have hidden in a storm drain not far from the scene of the shooting.
Prather's lawyer, Janet DeBossiere, of the public defender’s office, told the jury in her opening statement that Prather was acting in what she categorized as "mistaken self-defense." She also said that he is “part responsible” for the shootout.
DeBossiere said the shooting was not premeditated and argued that Prather should be facing attempted manslaughter charges, not attempted murder charges.
DeBossiere said a toxicology report on Prather conducted after his arrest on Oct. 24 revealed traces of PCP and marijuana in his body. She went on to say the drugs led to poor decision-making.
She also said sirens from police and emergency vehicles contributed to a chaotic scene and escalated the situation.
Prosecutor Jim Dietrich said in his opening statement that Prather repeatedly ignored police commands that would have diffused the situation, according to county State's Attorney spokesman Wayne Kirwan.
Dietrich said Prather made “a series of choices” that culminated in the shooting and that those choices warrant the attempted murder charges, Kirwan said.
“This trial is about choices,” Dietrich told the jury. “If you return a guilty verdict, you will hold him responsible for those choices.”
The shootout occurred in the middle of Route 1 northbound shortly after 4 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2013. Minutes before the shooting, police were called to a car dealership on Route 1 by a salesman who reported he believed that Prather, who had entered the dealership, was concealing a gun.
When approached by the first officer on the scene, Prather became agitated and began walking north on Route 1, forcing traffic to a halt.
Two additional officers arrived on the scene and a shootout ensued. Prather was shot twice, once in the leg and once in the side. Houk was shot once in the abdomen.
After the shootout, Prather fled. After a 17-hour manhunt, he was found at about 8:45 a.m. walking along Route 1, which had been closed by police for the manhunt. Police believe Prather had hidden in a storm drain near the scene of the shooting. Police found a gun and backpack, both believed to be belong to Prather, in the storm drain.
According to federal authorities, the gun used to shoot Houk was matched to the gun found in the storm drain.
Three prosecution witnesses testified on Tuesday: Adrian Ledesma, a salesman and manager at AutoMax on Route 1; Renan Palacios, a second AutoMax employee, and Ofc. Stella Dieu, one of the three county police officers involved in the shooting and the first to arrive on the scene.
Ledesma testified Prather, who he described as acting weird and sweating, entered the dealership and asked to test-drive a Cadillac parked out front. Ledesma testified he did not feel comfortable allowing Prather to take a test-drive because he suspected Prather, who would not remove his right hand from his pocket, had a gun.
Ledesma testified he never saw a gun, but was concerned Prather had one and called 9-1-1.
Ledesma testified that, a short while later, he saw an officer approach Prather in front of the business. He said Prather and the officer began shoving and Prather began cursing. He said Prather then started walking north on Route 1 and the officer followed.
He said he stayed in the business as the other officers arrived. After a few minutes, he said he heard gunshots and saw Prather flee.
Palacios, who spoke Spanish and testified through an interpreter, also said Prather would not remove his hand from his right pocket. He also testified that Prather began walking north on Route 1, and he said he saw Prather and the officers engage in the shootout.
Neither Palacios nor Ledesma knew who shot first.
Dieu testified she arrived on the scene and approached Prather, who she described as “very agitated." She said that, after she approached him, he began walking north on Route 1, bringing traffic to a stop. She said she issued him several commands, but he did not listen to them.
She said she requested backup and followed Prather, who was walking along the median of the thoroughfare, by walking along the right-hand shoulder of Route 1 northbound. While following Prather, Dieu said Houk and officer John Jackson arrived and approached Prather from behind.
Dieu said she did not have her gun drawn and was approximately 20 feet from Prather. She said Houk and Jackson, who she said had their guns drawn, were between 30 and 50 feet from Prather. She said the shootout started between Prather and the other officers, but that she also fired her weapon, discharging five rounds.
Following the shooting, she said she saw Houk lying in the street. When she went over to him, she realized he had been shot, she said.
Houk and Jackson are expected to testify when the trial resumes Wednesday.