Lisa Goldberg heard the police officers before she saw them - angry, disbelieving voices echoing in the marble hall outside Courtroom 201. They were waiting for her. With questions she could not begin to answer.

The workaholic mother of one had been through many rough scenes in her 10 years as a Baltimore prosecutor. She had held many hands, consoled many a murder victim's family.

But nothing quite like this.

"What, they didn't believe us?" one of the officers gasped as she stepped into the hallway. "The jury didn't believe us!"

Moments earlier, in one of the more incendiary verdicts in years, a Circuit Court jury had acquitted Eric D. Stennett of murder - clearing the gangly 17-year-old chronic offender in the horrific death last April of Baltimore police Officer Kevon M. Gavin.

Their verdict brought forth a torrent of recrimination. Jurors were criticized by public officials, lambasted on talk radio and excoriated by co-workers and their own families for putting an alleged cop-killer back on the street.

Now, seven weeks later, the jurors say enough is enough. They want it known that they did not reach their verdict haphazardly. And they are tired of being second-guessed by authorities who never set foot in the courtroom.

The criticisms "really sting," says Vivian Moore, 35, an MTA bus driver and church deaconess. "If you don't give them what they want, you're a bad person. ... We're not bad people. We're human beings."

In kitchen table conversations and late-evening talks in their living rooms, six of the 12 average citizens who decided the case on Jan. 19 described their experience to The Sun in recent days.

For the record, they say, there was little question that Stennett was responsible for Officer Gavin's death. Nonetheless, they felt they had no choice but to let him go.

It may be difficult to understand for those who have never sat through a trial. But in the hands of an expert defense lawyer, jurors say, hairline cracks in the evidence can become ruinous fissures, especially when police commit serial errors that fracture the proof from beginning to end.

In the realm of law, all it takes is a "reasonable doubt." And there were doubts aplenty in the case of State vs. Stennett.

But an exhaustive review of court records - and interviews with the trial's major participants - reveal other forces at work in the Stennett case.

Experts say that urban jurors, particularly African-Americans, have grown increasingly willing in recent years to acquit defendants they believe are guilty if they detect any abuse of police power.

Prosecutors, who despair that their cases now must be flawless to win, increasingly find themselves facing jurors for whom police misconduct is an all-too-common experience.

"In this day and age, a person of color is going to have mistrust of the police because these things happen," says juror Linda Hawkes, a 48-year-old health claims processor who says her son once missed a funeral after being detained by police without reason.

In Baltimore, a computer survey by The Sun of 300 Circuit Court verdicts over a two-year period found that juries threw out more than 40 percent of criminal cases that came before them.

Tom Munsterman of the National Center for State Courts, a nonprofit judicial think tank in Williamsburg, Va., says similar numbers are emerging in cities all over the country.

Paul Butler, a black former federal prosecutor and professor at George Washington University Law School, says African-Americans have become "extremely sensitive to certain patterns of testimony or to lapses in accepted police procedure."

"And they're far less likely to overlook it, or to give police the benefit of a doubt, especially if there's compound errors."

There was no lack of errors in the case against Eric D. Stennett - and at least a few jurors thought they detected something worse.

The runaway Bronco

The central events of April 20th were hardly in dispute.

At 8:04 that night, a tan Ford Bronco with darkly tinted windows stopped in front of an abandoned house at 2028 Wilkens Ave. in Southwest Baltimore near Carroll Park. On the steps, two men sat talking and drinking beer with their backs to the boarded-up front door.

The driver of the Bronco, a thin, black male, got out, took a few steps toward the curb, pulled a heavy, chrome-plated handgun and opened fire.

As the intended victims ran for cover, the gun spit sparks and smoke and rained empty brass shell casings in the middle of the street.

Four police officers, members of a crime-suppression detail who happened to be nearby in an unmarked car, turned toward the sound of the gunfire in time to see the shooter blaze away his last few rounds of ammunition before walking back to the Bronco.

The officers whipped in behind the truck. But as they piled out of their car to arrest the gunman, the Bronco bolted.

Within seconds, police radios all over West Baltimore were crackling with a description of the tan Ford truck and its heavily armed driver, and squad cars began converging on a wedge-shaped grid north of the park known as Sector 2.

Sucking a growing procession of cruisers along in its wake, the Bronco tore through a red light, narrowly missed a passing car and barreled across a grass median on Martin Luther King Boulevard before veering west onto Lombard Street.

One officer glanced at his speedometer: 80 miles an hour.

"He's pulling away from us like we're standing still," he told his partner.

Seconds later, two senior officers - a sergeant and a lieutenant - rolled into position on a cross street a few blocks away, timing their next move to the location reports pouring in over their radio. When the Bronco was a block away, Sgt. David Wimmer gunned his patrol car left onto Lombard to take up a position in front of the approaching truck.

No sooner had Wimmer finished his turn than the Bronco shot past, still gathering speed. In a split second, it pulled away at 90 miles an hour ... 95 ... 100 ... 104.

In the seat next to Wimmer, Lt. Mary Eilerman suddenly got a sick feeling in her stomach. Two blocks ahead, she saw a disaster in the making.

At that moment, Officer Kevon Gavin, 27 - a six-year veteran of the force, with a wife and three small children - was pulling his 1995 Chevy Caprice cruiser into the intersection at Gilmor Street as if to block the road.

"He came around that corner in almost slow motion," Eilerman would later testify, then turned left onto Lombard, directly into the path of the truck.

In his car trailing the Bronco, Wimmer had time to see the emergency lights swirling on the roof of Gavin's car up ahead. He heard Gavin's siren and thought he saw the Bronco sideswipe a parked car as it raced toward Gilmor Street.

Then, in the blink of an eye, the Bronco rocketed into the left-front of Gavin's car and burst into flames, plowing the cruiser along Lombard in a maelstrom of shattered glass, sheered chrome, twisting steel and burning rubber.

More than 100 feet later, the ball of smoke and metal finally came to rest, with the burning Bronco piled up on the hood of Gavin's cruiser and the officer trapped in the wreckage.

Frantic, Wimmer, Eilerman and a dozen more officers rushed to their injured comrade. Inside the squad car, they found Gavin pinned under the dashboard - unconscious, bloody and barely breathing. The officers threw their shoulders into the demolished Bronco in a vain attempt to lift it off their friend.

"Signal 13! Signal 13! Officer down!" someone yelled into a radio transmitter.

Officers reached inside the mangled car, desperately ripping at Gavin's clothing and bulletproof vest, trying to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Someone kicked in the right-rear window and Officer Frank Jarrell Jr. squirmed inside - clawing his way over the cruiser's torn upholstery before realizing that the situation was hopeless.

"It was the most desperate, frustrating situation," Eilerman later testified.

The street was by then clogged with patrol cars, lights whirling, sirens screaming. Eilerman went from officer to officer, grabbing them by the shoulders, shaking them, demanding that they move their cruisers and clear the way for emergency equipment.

"I saw grown men ... standing in the middle of the road and a couple more into the park, standing there, sobbing uncontrollably," Eilerman recalled.

Within minutes, paramedics and firefighters were crawling over the wreckage, clamping an oxygen mask on the injured officer and maneuvering heavy rescue gear into place to tear the roof off the cruiser.

It would take them an hour to extract Gavin from the car. It would take Gavin 20 hours to die.

Meanwhile, several officers had approached the Bronco.

Inside, they found a box of ammunition, a Smith & Wesson 10 mm semiautomatic pistol, a blue baseball cap bearing the logo of the Indianapolis Pacers basketball team and a scrawny 17-year-old named Eric D. Stennett with a record of drug arrests going back to his 13th birthday.

No one else.

No possibility of mistaken identity.

No room for a shadow of doubt.

Then one of the officers reached in and grabbed the pistol with his bare hand - and the case of State vs. Stennett began to unravel.

Mishandled evidence

Amid the pandemonium at Lombard and Gilmor streets that night, at least three key pieces of evidence would be mishandled. And as time wore on - as hours gave way to days, and days turned into weeks - it only got worse.

  • Upon finding that Stennett was wearing a bulletproof vest, an officer tore it off without hesitation and threw it on the ground before evidence technicians had a chance to photograph the suspect actually wearing it.

  • At the scene of the shooting on Wilkens Avenue, a second officer scooped up the spent shell casings from the street but failed to mark their position on the asphalt for photographers. So he came back later and chalked them off from memory, drawing 10 yellow X's on the ground where he had found nine brass cartridges.

  • One officer filed a report from the scene but didn't sign it. Another neglected to date his. And still another filled out his report of the night's events, then went home, changed his mind and filed a second one several days later that contradicted his first version.

  • Officers who witnessed the shooting said the gunman had a large bandana or scarf wrapped around his hand as he fired - suggesting he was trying to keep incriminating gunpowder residue from sticking to his fingers. But police didn't report finding one.

    Five months later, a scarf allegedly recovered at the crash scene surfaced in an evidence locker at headquarters, covered with gunpowder residue.

  • Months after the crash - and months before Stennett was to stand trial in the death of Officer Gavin - officials at the city Public Works Department's central garage on Hanover Street sold the officer's demolished cruiser for scrap. Only when Stennett's attorneys went to inspect the car did stunned Baltimore detectives learn that a sizable piece of evidence in their case had been liquidated.

    For A. Dwight Pettit, it was a cascade of almost impossible good fortune.

    'A lot to work with'

    A shrewd criminal defense lawyer with 30 years' experience and a gracious manner that has won over many a Baltimore jury, Pettit knew a "dog" when he saw one. And Eric Stennett's case looked like a dog from Day One, a sure-fire conviction.

    But as Pettit learned more about the irregularities in the evidence, he began to see cracks of daylight in the case against his client.

    "When an officer goes down, they call out the cavalry," Pettit says. "With the emotion running the way it was that night, they [police] were so rocked to their foundations emotionally that it led to a loss of professionalism.

    "I don't fault them for that. They're human. But it's a dumb thing to pick up the gun with your bare hand. It's a dumb thing to handle the bullets. It's a dumb thing to put 10 X's on the street when you only have nine cartridges to show the jury.

    "And that's before we even start talking about how they managed to lose the police car, you know? It's like, 'Come on, guys, get it together!' By the time the trial started, the Police Department had given us a lot to work with."

    Growing skepticism

    Tuesday, Jan. 9, dawned gray and drizzly, but the first swaths of black and purple bunting were beginning to appear downtown after a spectacular upset win by the Ravens the previous Sunday over the Tennessee Titans. And all of Baltimore was buzzing about the team's chances of going to the Super Bowl.

    But there was no jubilation in Room 201 at the courthouse as jurors filed to their seats for the first day of testimony in the matter of indictment No. 100143018-20.

    Ranging in age from 25 to 67, all were working class, including a telephone operator, a laundry attendant, a bus driver, a cook and a retired steel worker. Nine were African-American women. Three were men - one black, one Hispanic and one white.

    In opening remarks to the jury, Pettit noted repeatedly that police accounts of the night of April 20 would form the bulk of the prosecution's case against his client.

    "No civilian witness will take that stand to voluntarily identify Eric Stennett as shooting a gun that night," Pettit said, one of many suggestions that the jurors should be skeptical of police testimony in the case.

    And the police witnesses did not disappoint him.

    Over the course of a few hours of testimony, the four officers who witnessed the shooting gave varying descriptions of the bandana that Stennett supposedly wore around his hand that night.

    One said it was a "dark" color.

    A second said it was "bright," then "red," then "bright" again.

    Another didn't describe the color.

    And the fourth officer didn't mention the scarf at all.

    In fact, the scarf that surfaced five months after the shooting was black.

    In telling how the gunman walked to his car after the shooting, the four officers variously described his gait as a "swagger," "a slow, cocky walk," "a hurried sway" or said simply, "he walked."

    The distinctions were small, and the variances were slight, and they had nothing to do with the facts at the heart of the case.

    Stennett was the only person in the Bronco that destroyed Officer Gavin's cruiser. Marks on the shell casings from the Wilkens Avenue shooting precisely matched the firing mechanism of the stolen 10 mm pistol found in Stennett's truck. And the ammunition clip in the pistol had Stennett's thumbprint on it.

    But Pettit did not let a single factual wrinkle or lapse in procedure pass the jury's attention.

    "Their stories were totally different," recalls Moore, the MTA driver and church deaconess. "You had four people in the vehicle and their stories were different. ... Their stories didn't add up."

    And on the witness stand, each of the four officers was forced to admit that he never saw the shooter's face because he had been focused on the gun.

    Neither could they say whether anyone was in the Bronco with him.

    "Didn't recognize shooter," Hawkes wrote in her notes of the trial. "Didn't see face. ... Couldn't ID shooter."

    As the case unfolded, as the numerous lapses in accepted police practice were revealed, Hawkes grew increasingly skeptical, then aghast.

    "Did not use gloves when handled weapon," she wrote. "Why??"

    "Never reported finding ... scarf. Why???"

    "Why no one followed procedure!!!"

    "Gunshot residue test on Stennett. Did not find ... residue on hands."

    "Did not know patrol car was destroyed."

    "Deliberately kept Stennett from lawyer and family."

    Among many actions by police that alienated the jurors, this was perhaps the most offensive to the many mothers sitting on the panel.

    Stennett, still a minor, had a diagnosis after the crash of a concussion and possible skull fracture. But homicide detectives had kept the befuddled youth in custody for nearly three days - turning away repeated calls from his lawyer and his mother requesting to see him - until he was well enough to be questioned.

    Police justified the action on the grounds that Stennett had never requested an attorney and that they were not technically required to tell the teen that his mother had already hired one for him.

    Hawkes, among others, was livid at the revelation: "I was furious," she recalls. "I felt they were trying to railroad that boy."

    A telling incident

    Early in the trial, Judge Carol E. Smith released the panel for a lunch recess with the usual cautions not to discuss the case.

    As they left the courthouse, the jurors split into two groups - one turning right toward sandwich shops along Lexington Street, the other turning left for the half-block walk to Gina's Cafe at Calvert and Fayette.

    There, they filled their trays from the buffet tables and drifted to their usual seats in the corner. The easy conversation of prior meals had barely gotten under way, however, when one juror sat heavily in her chair and blurted her exasperation.

    "I'm so sick about this case, I can't eat my lunch," she said. "The police must take us for fools."

    One of the jurors who was there recalled that several in the group nodded agreement, then cautioned the woman about talking further of her misgivings.

    "The judge had just finished telling us we weren't supposed to be talking about the case," said the juror, a 43-year-old postal clerk and single mother from Northeast Baltimore. "So a couple of us warned her not to say anything more, like: 'We're all in this together, and we know how you feel, but we got to wait till we hear all the evidence.'"

    The woman apologized and spoke no more of the case.

    But as a barometer of the jury's mood, the brief interlude at Gina's was telling.

    For one thing, it was still early in the trial and at least a few jurors were already having doubts about the police testimony. For another, the worst of the evidentiary problems was still to come.

    A short time later, Sergeant Wimmer took the stand.

    Conflicting accounts

    Among the officers closest to the crash at the moment of impact, Wimmer should have been one of the prosecution's best witnesses. But his credibility quickly ebbed under a lacerating cross-examination by Stennett's lawyer.

    On the night of the crash, Wimmer wrote in his official statement that the Bronco had sideswiped at least one parked car on Lombard Street. And he reported that the driver of the Bronco "seemed to lose control" a heartbeat before the truck "veered" into Gavin's cruiser.

    In other words, by Wimmer's account, the Bronco was being driven recklessly, but there was nothing intentional about the killing. Rather, the death of Officer Gavin was an accident - a horrible, stupid, reckless accident.

    Wimmer, however, did not leave it at that.

    Several days after filing his original report, he submitted a second.

    "I'll tell you, my head was really screwed up that night," Wimmer told the jury. "I was very emotional, and I wrote basically what I had in my head that night.

    "The next day, I was on my leave day and ... I realized what I really saw that night."

    But Wimmer's second report left out any mention of the Bronco sideswiping a parked car - and police found no damaged car that night. It also left out the part about the Bronco appearing to go out of control. And it no longer described the truck as veering before the collision.

    Instead, Wimmer wrote that the Bronco "did not attempt to slow down or stop," and that the driver had plenty of room to go around Gavin's cruiser, but ran into it instead.

    According to Wimmer's second account, the crash was an intentional act - murder.

    In the jury box, Hawkes caught the inconsistency - and the implications - immediately. The difference between Wimmer's two reports was the difference between Stennett's spending a few years in prison for manslaughter or the rest of his life for homicide.

    "First report, suspect clipped another car and lost control of Bronco," Hawkes wrote in her notes, "2nd report, suspect deliberately ran into patrol car.

    "Why two reports totally different ... Not customary to rewrite reports!"

    In his cross-examination of the sergeant, Pettit was merciless.

    Q: "Isn't it a fact, officer, on the [first] report of the 20th ... what you wrote then was the truth?"

    A: "No. I wrote what was in my head, sir."

    Q: "And, wasn't that the truth?"

    A: "That's what I believed [it] to be at the time because that's what was in my head, yes, sir."

    The explanation left more than a few jurors incredulous.

    "You can't just go turning your report around to ... some version you want to believe happened," said one juror, a 56-year-old retired teacher's aide from West Baltimore. "You're supposed to do your job and do it right. Show some professionalism, especially when you're talking about a criminal charge.

    "Two reports?! Saying two different things?! Please."

    And it was not the only such instance.

    A question of intent

    In a police reconstruction of the crash, traffic Officer Raymond A. Howard reported that he had found a tire track 50 feet beyond the point of impact that indicated that the Bronco continued to accelerate even after it hit Officer Gavin's cruiser.

    Based on that evidence, Howard concluded in an undated, unsigned report that the crash "was not a 'traffic collision,' but appeared to be a purposeful intent on the Bronco driver's part."

    "This collision was intentional," he wrote.

    Once again, according to police, the death of Officer Gavin was murder.

    And once again, an officer felt compelled to change his report.

    After being confronted six months later with evidence gathered by a private accident analyst hired by Stennett's lawyers, Howard issued another unsigned, undated report.

    In fact, he acknowledged, the track he had found at the scene did not match any of the Bronco's tires.

    And he conceded that severe damage to the throttle linkage "disallowed any further acceleration" after impact.

    "This supplementary report is in reference to a correction necessary for certain information that was originally reported, but additional facts have been discovered," Howard's second report concluded.

    The crash was downgraded from "intentional" to "avoidable."

    Or, as the jury saw it, from murder to something more like manslaughter.

    A bomb called Dorsey

    The final and perhaps most devastating blow to the police version of events centered on a pair of pants - specifically, a pair of black jeans worn by Antonio Dorsey, 18.

    In the sequence of events leading to the death of Officer Gavin, none was as important in the minds of many jurors as the shooting on Wilkens Avenue. For it was the shooting that set everything else in motion.

    And the alleged target of that shooting was Dorsey.

    Despite the fusillade of bullets thrown his way that night as he sat on the steps drinking beer, Dorsey was untouched save for a nick on his right shin. And nothing about the nick distinguished it as a bullet wound.

    Taken into custody by police, Dorsey agreed to identify the man who shot at him, choosing a picture of Eric D. Stennett from a photo lineup of possible suspects.

    Detectives photographed the front of his jeans and the nick on his shin. But they did not impound Dorsey's pants as evidence. Neither did they insist that he see a doctor after he refused treatment.

    Worse, when their film was developed, there was no bullet hole visible in the pants.

    "I remember thinking: 'How exactly does Antonio Dorsey get a supposed bullet wound in his leg without there being a bullet hole in his pants?'" Pettit recalls. "And how does the detective - a 21-year veteran of the force - explain the fact that he didn't seize the jeans?"

    "We just forgot," testified Detective Joseph Smith of the Southern District, acknowledging that he let Dorsey walk out of the police station that night with his pants still on.

    Then Dorsey took the stand - and dropped a bomb in the middle of the prosecution's case.

    Dorsey testified that police had handcuffed him, threatened him repeatedly and told him he couldn't leave until he identified Stennett's picture.

    "The whole time I was there I was being harassed," he told the jury, adding that he couldn't identify the gunman because he was wearing a mask.

    Prosecutor Goldberg has grown accustomed to such moments, she now says: Eyewitnesses who lie, recant or conveniently forget are commonplace in Baltimore Circuit Court - often for fear of retaliation, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of sinking a case.

    But in a matter of minutes, the only witness who ever positively identified Stennett as the gunman evaporated on the stand - leaving the prosecution's case hinging on the one piece of evidence that was beyond dispute. And his lawyer knew there was no explaining it away.

    "When they pull your client out of a burning Bronco sitting on top of a police car, you got a big problem," Pettit says. "There was no getting around that."

    Closing arguments

    Seven days after the trial began, Pettit walked from his place at the defense table and took his position before the jury to deliver his closing argument. He had been up most of the night writing it, but any lingering weariness dissipated the moment he took to his feet.

    A bear of a man, Pettit retains the grace and composure of his days as a Howard University football player - utterly at ease before an audience. But his seeming confidence masked a well of insecurity about the fate of his client, whom he fully expected to see hauled off in chains by the end of the day.

    Stennett slouched in his seat, as if completely unconcerned with the outcome.

    "I'm not saying that this young man should walk out of here free," Pettit told the jury. "I'm not saying that he's not guilty of something. But I'm suggesting to you ... it's vehicular homicide, if anything, manslaughter, if anything. It's not murder in the first. It's not murder in the second degree."

    As she had throughout the trial, Goldberg spent much of her time before the jury rehabilitating her witnesses and minimizing the lapses in police procedure. She stressed that many of the officers were "emotionally a mess" that night.

    Then she tried to focus the jury's attention on Stennett - and on the definition of murder.

    "He plowed through this man ... as he sat in his patrol car," she said, pacing back and forth across the floor and showing the jurors a photo of Officer Gavin. "He tried to go right through him. Don't forget that.

    "This is not an accident, and there is absolutely no reasonable doubt under the sun not to convict this defendant of ... the murder of Kevon Gavin."

    In the courtroom gallery, a wall of blue uniforms several rows deep had closed around the fallen officer's wife, Lisa. Behind her sat the defendant's mother, Margaret Beatty, supported by a small circle of friends.

    As the jury filed out, everyone present expected them to return shortly with a guilty verdict.

    The jury deliberates

    The jurors entered a side room dominated by a long mahogany-colored table and chairs, with a blackboard on one wall and a water cooler in the corner. The setting was spartan but not uncomfortable.

    On one wall, a grimy window overlooked Calvert Street and the spectacle of three television vans with their broadcast snorkels extended nearly to the jurors' eye level.

    Technicians with walkie-talkies and cameras in hand milled around on the sidewalk, as television reporters scripted their lines on yellow legal pads for the live shot at 5 o'clock.

    "Whichever way we decided, we knew we were going to be on the news that night," recalled the 43-year-old postal clerk. "There were TV trucks all up and down the street."

    At the outset, they agreed to take a preliminary vote, moving around the table from one juror to the next, to get a sense of where they stood.

    "Guilty," said one. "Guilty of murder."

    At least two other jurors agreed.

    John M. Miller Jr., a 25-year-old dishwasher, was among them.

    "I was outnumbered," he recalls. "Most jurors felt he was innocent [of murder]. ... Most of them thought the police screwed up."

    Miller, the lone white juror, was among the tenuous minority who thought Stennett might have intentionally rammed Gavin's cruiser. He was also among the few willing to overlook the breaches of procedure by police.

    "I thought they were doing their best because they were thinking of the officer who died," he says. "They had that on their mind. I think they tried their best. I thought he must be guilty."

    In this, Miller reflects the views of most white Americans.

    Repeated opinion polls since 1994 by the Gallup Organization of Princeton, N.J., involving thousands of respondents, have consistently found that nearly 60 percent of whites express confidence in police, compared with less than 40 percent of racial minorities.

    This wide disparity, combined with recent high-profile reports of alleged police perjury and evidence-planting, would prompt Baltimore Circuit Judge Audrey Carrion to order in January a grand jury investigation into police conduct.

    But Miller echoed other members of the Stennett jury in saying that none of the other jurors pressured him or raised their voices in disagreement. Rather, deliberations were conducted with equanimity.

    Nonetheless, at the end of their preliminary vote, it was clear that the majority was convinced that Stennett did not intentionally kill Officer Gavin.

    "With the evidence they showed us, murder wasn't there, no way," says the 43-year-old postal clerk. "A lot of the evidence was in conflict. The police reports were a mess."

    Moore, the bus driver, recalls that all the best evidence pointed to the crash having been an accident.

    "We couldn't find where he had premeditated or pre-planned it," she says.

    And the original reports filed by Sergeant Wimmer and Lieutenant Eilerman provided compelling proof against second-degree murder as well.

    Both officers had written that Stennett might have lost control of the speeding Bronco just before the crash. And that left "reasonable doubt" as to whether he could have "aimed" the truck at Gavin's cruiser with the intention of killing him.

    Hawkes, who consulted her notes repeatedly during deliberations, was less charitable.

    "Too many problems, too many inconsistencies, ... too many holes," she says. "They wanted to get him [for murder] because an officer was killed."

    After some four hours of discussion, with a solid majority firmly in place and no readily apparent middle ground for a compromise verdict, the jurors asked permission to go home for the night.

    Confusing instructions

    The next morning, they returned to the courthouse around 9:30. Some were visibly haggard. Hawkes, for one, had tossed and turned in bed the night before, managing to get a couple of hours sleep at best. And at least two others were suffering early symptoms of the flu that had been working its way through Baltimore since Christmas.

    As they had done every morning of the trial, the jurors bowed their heads for a moment of quiet prayer.

    "Let God increase our vigilance and not let our personal feelings and judgments hinder the case."

    Then they faced the central question of their deliberations: If not murder, then what? Could it be a case of manslaughter - an accidental killing resulting from reckless behavior?

    It quickly proved to be an inescapable bog.

    Seeking guidance about the definition of the crime, the jurors were forced to go through the tedious exercise of rewinding recorded instructions from Judge Smith four or five times.

    Among the jurors, a 30-year-old cook who had moved to Baltimore from Puerto Rico in 1994, was having the most trouble, because he speaks English only haltingly and barely reads it at all.

    "I am not pretty good at it," he says. "I didn't ever finish high school."

    While he was inclined to blame himself for his lack of understanding, a blue-ribbon task force that reviewed trial procedures in Maryland last year found that average citizens are often stumped by dense legal language in jury instructions.

    Maryland does not require judges to provide jurors with "plain English" written instructions to follow. Rather, the task force found, juries are often cut adrift in their deliberations with nothing but an audiotape to guide them.

    "If at all possible, written copies of the jury instructions should be provided ... [as] a ready reference," the task force urged last April. But nearly a year later, that recommendation has yet to be adopted as standard practice in Baltimore's Circuit Court.

    In the Stennett case, the constant winding and rewinding of the taped instructions was taking a toll, jurors say, breaking their concentration and repeatedly bringing discussion to a standstill.

    "Each time, it took about 15 minutes," Moore recalls.

    Each time, Judge Smith could be heard reading from a sheet of paper on the bench: "The defendant is also charged with the crime of manslaughter by motor vehicle. In order to convict the defendant of this charge, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt: one, that the defendant drove, operated or moved a motor vehicle; two, that the defendant acted in a grossly negligent manner, that is, in a manner that created a high degree of risk to human life; and, three, that this grossly negligent conduct caused the death of Kevon Gavin."

    Several jurors asked for a dictionary to help them figure out what the judge meant by "reasonable," "grossly negligent" and "high degree." But it was the last clause that caused the greatest difficulty.

    Yes, the jurors agreed, Stennett was speeding.

    Yes, it was risky behavior to go so fast on the narrow byways of Baltimore's rowhouse neighborhoods.

    But could it be said that Stennett was solely responsible for the death of Officer Gavin?

    The stunning verdict

    The jurors concluded that there was no solid evidence that Stennett was the man with the gun on Wilkens Avenue - certainly not after Dorsey got finished on the witness stand.

    And the four officers who had chased the Bronco were driving an unmarked cruiser. Might Stennett have been running for his life, fearful that the men in the car behind him were drug dealers out to kill him?

    "I don't think a police officer pulled up and flashed his lights to pull him over," says Moore. "The way I saw it, he may not have had a chance to stop."

    Miller, the white juror who originally voted for a murder conviction, now simply says: "To me, he might have been scared."

    Secondly, there was ample evidence that Officer Gavin might have contributed to the crash. By pulling his patrol car in front of the speeding Bronco, he left Stennett very little room for error.

    Then, too, there was the autopsy report.

    Introduced as evidence in court, it was little discussed during the trial. But it contained at least two facts that the jury decided were vital on the question of whether Officer Gavin might have played a role in his own death.

    Not only was the officer an asthmatic, but he also had been suffering from pneumonia. And he had alcohol in his bloodstream - nearly half the level to be considered legally drunk under Maryland law.

    A medical examiner testified that the body produces alcohol as it decomposes. But jurors speculated that the alcohol in Gavin's system might just as readily have come from medication.

    "Maybe he wasn't alert," Hawkes says. "To me, he shouldn't have been at work, between the asthma and the pneumonia. ... We figured he couldn't have been feeling too well."

    Finally, many of the jurors felt that the crash never would have occurred if police had not been chasing the Bronco.

    "He was partly responsible for the officer's death because he was speeding," Hawkes says of Stennett. "But I also feel the officers chasing him share some responsibility. They should have backed off. ... They were speeding, too."

    In the final hour leading to their verdict, the jury became preoccupied with such questions and ultimately returned to the evidence itself - the inconsistent testimony, the botched reports, the disappearing police cruiser, the mishandled gun and shell casings, the lost scarf.

    And one by one, the holdouts collapsed as the evidence against Stennett led them from first-degree murder, to murder two, to manslaughter to something much less.

    "A lot of things were not right," the Hispanic juror recalls. "Some cops did their job. Some of them did wrong. ... Every one of them did things they were not supposed to do.

    "We were trying so hard [to convict]. We couldn't find any proof or reason to do it."

    And so it was that early on that Friday afternoon, the jury came back with "not guilty" verdicts on all charges - exonerating Stennett of any responsibility for the death of Officer Kevon Malik Gavin and acquitting him of attempted murder in the Wilkens Avenue shooting, of using a handgun to commit a felony and of wearing a bulletproof vest during the commission of a crime.

    Officer Gavin's widow fled the courtroom in tears.

    Eric Stennett's mother leaped from her seat, sobbing, "Oh, yes, yes!"

    Impassive as ever, the defendant sat next to his lawyer with his legs sprawled before him, expressionless. At the other end of the table, Pettit stood with his mouth open as the jury filed out of the courtroom, a stunned expression etched on his face.

    'How did this happen?'

    Within the hour, the recriminations had begun.

    Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the verdict "a kick in the stomach ... a bad day for us and the Gavin family," and fumed that a guilty verdict should have been a "no-brainer" for the jury.

    A shaken Mayor Martin O'Malley said the outcome showed "no respect" for the fallen officer, and asked: "How did this happen?"

    Lisa Goldberg has been wondering the same thing ever since.

    A career prosecutor with a reputation for coolness under pressure, she sits in her tiny office on the fourth floor of Courthouse East, contemplating a dozen red files full of bloody crimes that make up her caseload.

    A defendant does not make it this far - does not arrive on Goldberg's desk, next to the framed pictures of her 4-year-old daughter, in the homicide office - unless the facts are damning.

    "They've really come to expect perfection," she says of Baltimore juries, "and police officers are human, so they're never going to get perfection. ... If this verdict is any indication, we have a serious problem.

    "I have 12 more cases sitting here waiting to go to trial. And none of them are perfect."

    Goldberg thinks back over the past 10 years that she has been a prosecutor and says there has been a definite change in the attitude of jurors.

    "If I ever felt the earth move beneath my feet," she says, "it was after the O. J. Simpson trial. We all did, as prosecutors. Things changed dramatically after that. The way average people approach the system is totally different. There's a suspiciousness that wasn't there before."

    She is loath to criticize the jury that set Eric D. Stennett free, saying only that "no one knows what a jury goes through to reach a decision, except the jury."

    Then, she adds: "We have to find a way to make something good come from this. The death of this officer has to stand for something more than this. It's just been too ugly."

    Sun staff writer Caitlin Francke contributed to this article.