Officer's lawyers call Randallstown teen's death accidental

Baltimore County police officer James D. Laboard was playing Jenga at his Randallstown home when he heard the rock hit his door. The officer ran out and chased the teenager he saw running away, his lawyers said, touching off an altercation that led to Christopher Brown's "completely accidental" death.

The account came Tuesday during Laboard's manslaughter trial, in which the defense laid out his side of the story for the first time. His attorneys said in opening statements that Brown, 17, had punched the off-duty officer and that Laboard had used his body weight in an attempt to subdue the teen.

But prosecutors said Laboard was responsible for escalating the situation, and had gone beyond what he had been trained as a police officer to do. Deputy State's Attorney Robin Coffin said Laboard used a "choke hold," leaving deep bruises on Brown's lifeless body.

Jurors in the case will have to sort through the details of that night last June and consider how Brown died as they consider whether Laboard was at fault. The medical examiner who performed the autopsy is expected to take the stand, as are experts in police use of force.

In court statements Tuesday, attorneys and prosecution witnesses added a new level of detail to the incident. Brown's friends said he had smoked marijuana with them before they set off to pull some neighborhood pranks. Laboard's attorneys said the teen was larger than the officer and had resisted arrest.

"He did what any good police officer should do," defense attorney Ezra S. Gollogly said. "He understands a policeman is never off duty."

Laboard's girlfriend of six years testified that the couple was sitting at the dining room table with her son at the officer's home on Susanna Road on the night of June 13, 2012. Danielle Kennedy said they stopped their game when they heard a "loud bang" at the front door.

Laboard got up to investigate, she said, and took off on foot when he noticed people running from the house. Kennedy said she got into Laboard's car and tried to follow. She saw a police car and trailed it to nearby Starbrook Road, where Laboard had found Brown hiding in some bushes.

By that time, nearby resident Dorothy Paul had called police from her home. She said a man was sitting on top of another man on her front lawn, according to the 911 call played in court. Paul, who is 79, was excused to coming to court for medical reasons.

In a second call, she reported that "his whole body is laying on top of him."

A man's voice is audible in the background of the recording, saying, "Officer needs assistance." Paul hung up after an officer arrived at the scene.

Timothy Davis was the first officer to respond. He had worked with Laboard on the overnight shift at the Woodlawn Precinct but testified that he did not immediately recognize him when he pulled up.

He said he saw two people in the yard. One was on his stomach and had his face turned toward Paul's house. Another motioned for the officer to come over; Davis soon recognized him as Laboard.

Davis said Laboard, who was kneeling on Brown's back, told him that he had chased the teen and begun to question him. Laboard said the teen denied doing anything wrong, then started swinging. According to Davis' testimony, Laboard told the officer that he "managed to get the subject in the choke hold."

Prosecutors seized on that statement as they suggested that Laboard had used excessive force. Coffin told the jury that although Brown was with teens who were vandalizing property, that is "not a capital offense."

Soon after officers arrived on the scene, Kennedy said, she walked up onto the lawn, where she noticed that Brown had become limp. A certified nursing assistant, she asked Davis to help her flip the teen over and then began CPR.

A second officer who responded to the scene used a protective mask to give the teen rescue breaths. He also got a defibrillator to help resuscitate the teen. Medics arrived soon after.

The officer also testified he noticed a smell of alcohol from Brown's mouth during attempts to revive him.

Brown was taken to Northwest Hospital, where he died. A school resource officer came to the hospital to identify him.

Photos of Brown's body from the hospital show him in a dark T-shirt and shorts. His sneakers were still on. In one photo, a technician had opened his eyes, showing red blood vessels.

A picture taken later at Laboard's house shows that the front door had been damaged. Another image shows a concrete brick from a neighbor's flower bed.

Laboard had been scratched and bruised on his upper chest and shoulders, police said. The collar of his white T-shirt had been torn.

Several of Brown's friends also testified Tuesday about the night he died. There had been eight boys from the neighborhood, who smoked a marijuana blunt made from a cigar.

They got bored, several teens testified, and Brown suggested they go "knicker-knocking." Another called the activity "ding dong ditch."

The plan was to knock on doors and run away before anybody answered. But several of the teens said the game escalated to the point where they were throwing bricks and stones, knocking over trash cans along the way.

Two boys threw rocks at Laboard's home, several testified, one at his door, another at his kitchen window. All said Brown did not throw the rock and was standing away from the officer's home at the time. The boys scattered.

Brown wasn't there when the others met up at one boy's house. One friend testified that Brown had called to tell him in a whisper to go inside. He assumed Brown was speaking quietly so his mother wouldn't hear him.

It was not until the next day he would learn Brown had died.

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