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After Ferguson, looking back at Baltimore police shooting

In light of Ferguson, it strikes me as remarkable that a similar case Baltimore sparked little outrage. Not only was the victim in that case young, black and unarmed, but he was shot in the back by a police officer. Given how people in Missouri and across the nation reacted to the shooting of Michael Brown in August, I wondered why the death of Edward Lamont Hunt in 2008 hasn't set off more than one candlelight vigil here.

In light of Ferguson, it strikes me as remarkable that the Hamilton Park case in Baltimore sparked little outrage. Not only was the victim in that case young, black and unarmed, but he was shot in the back by a police officer. Given how people in Missouri and across the nation reacted to the shooting of Michael Brown in August, I wondered why the death of Edward Lamont Hunt in 2008 hasn't set off more than one candlelight vigil here.

Of course, I only wondered about it because a friend mentioned the Hamilton Park case in the midst of the Ferguson riots. My memory of it was vague, though The Baltimore Sun covered the shooting and the criminal trial of the police officer two years later.

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Here are some of the facts, with a few comparisons:

In January 2008, Officer Tommy Sanders was on patrol in the Hamilton Park Shopping Center in Northeast Baltimore. According to police reports, court documents and testimony, Sanders spotted the 27-year-old Hunt, thought he was acting suspiciously, stopped him and started to search him. Moments later, Sanders said, Hunt assaulted him and ran off. Sanders chased him and fired three shots, striking Hunt twice in the back and killing him.

In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson stopped Brown after receiving a report of a nearby convenience store robbery. According to Wilson, Brown punched him through the window of Wilson's police vehicle. The officer fired two shots, with one of them grazing Brown's thumb. Brown ran off. The officer pursued him to another street, where, he said, the 18-year-old stopped and came toward him. Wilson fired several more shots, killing Brown.

In Ferguson, Brown was unarmed.

In Hamilton Park, Hunt was unarmed.

In Ferguson, a grand jury declined to indict Wilson.

In the Hamilton Park case, a grand jury indicted Sanders on a charge of voluntary manslaughter.

That's a significant distinction from the Ferguson case, says Michael Belsky, the attorney who represented Sanders. Such cases have been rare in Baltimore. At the time, Sanders was the first police officer to face charges stemming from a duty-related shooting in 13 years.

Sanders went on trial in 2010.

The state tried to prove that Sanders had no reason to use deadly force. According to a Sun article, eight witnesses testified that they never saw Hunt assault Sanders and never saw Hunt reach into his coat as he fled.

When Sanders testified, he told the jury that he believed Hunt was staring at him across the shopping center parking lot, which the officer found suspicious. "Most of the time when somebody's watching you, it's for a reason," Sanders said.

He said he approached Hunt and started to search him. But Hunt broke free. He said Hunt assumed a "fighting stance" twice before running away. As he ran, Sanders said, Hunt's right arm stopped moving and his elbow rose sharply, leading the officer to believe that Hunt was reaching into a pocket. If not for this motion, Sanders insisted, he would not have fired his gun.

The jury deliberated a little more than three hours before delivering a not-guilty verdict.

Jurors obviously believed Sanders when he testified that he felt his life was in danger. And they must have been influenced by an expert, called by Belsky, who said that Sanders' actions were in accordance with his police training.

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I can find no record of public protest of Sanders' acquittal.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham, who was president of the Baltimore NAACP chapter at the time, recalls a candlelight vigil in the shopping center on the night of Hunt's death in 2008. But aside from that — and a call by Cheatham a few months later for a statewide rally to draw attention to police shootings here and elsewhere — there's little in the record of public outrage over Hunt's death and Sanders' acquittal.

So, back to my question: Why the sustained uproar in Ferguson and not in Hamilton Park?

Is it because Sanders, the officer in the Hamilton Park case, was black, while Wilson, the officer in Ferguson, was white?

You could draw that conclusion. But you could also speculate that there were no images from the Baltimore shooting scene, no spontaneous anger expressed in social media — the kinds of things that would have given Hunt's death quick traction as a civil rights violation. And Cheatham says groups that are today active when it comes to police conduct were not as active at the time of Hunt's death.

Ferguson has drawn attention to police shootings of young black men in a way no other case has. In this post-Ferguson America, it's now hard to imagine a case like the one from Hamilton Park slipping by without major and sustained protest.

Three years ago, the city settled a lawsuit filed by Hunt's family for $375,000; neither the city nor the officer acknowledged any wrongdoing. Sanders sought workers' compensation payments for post-traumatic stress symptoms but voluntarily withdrew his claim. The officer, who declined to be interviewed for this column, is still employed by the Baltimore Police Department, in records management.

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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