Maryland’s state prosecutor returned to an Eastern Shore courtroom Tuesday to retry a misconduct case against Kelvin Sewell, Pocomoke City’s first black police chief, who accused his former department of racial discrimination.
The case against Sewell, who was fired in 2015, comes after city officials in March agreed to settle a federal lawsuit that the former chief filed alleging rampant discrimination and retaliation. As part of the settlement, the town agreed to mandatory reforms of its police policies and training.
An appeals court overturned Sewell’s misconduct conviction after his first trial and sent the case back to Worcester County Circuit Court in Snow Hill. Sewell is accused of improperly interfering in the investigation of a 2014 car crash, allegations he denies.
Sewell’s supporters say the charges would not have been brought if he and two other black police officers had not taken a stand against racial discrimination in Worcester County law enforcement.
The new trial, expected to last two days, revives a difficult period for the city of 4,000 people. Sewell’s firing by the City Council prompted protests and exposed long-standing racial tensions.
In court Tuesday, Maryland state prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt told jurors that Sewell had violated his oath to enforce the law without bias by not filing charges after the traffic incident.
Sewell’s attorney Barry Coburn predicted in his opening statement that the jury would conclude that the former police chief had not “acted corruptly.”
Civil rights leaders had urged Davitt to drop the case after the appeals court ruling.
“It is evident that Chief Sewell’s activism played a part in the drive for his prosecution by white law enforcement officials and leaders in Pocomoke and Worcester County,” the officials wrote in a letter to Davitt. “We have trouble understanding why your office would use its full powers to pursue a petty case against Chief Sewell, in which no one was injured.”
Davitt, whose office pursues campaign finance and public-corruption cases, said that the discrimination complaints and federal lawsuit were not connected to his investigation and that he was compelled to retry the matter.
“We think this was a serious case where there was inappropriate interference by the chief,” Davitt said of Sewell. “This was not a fender bender.”
The state charge of misconduct in office does not carry a set penalty. If Sewell is convicted by the jury — made up of six men and six women, including one African American — any punishment would be set by the judge in the case, W. Newton Jackson III.
Council member Diane Downing, who was the only African American on the council at the time of Sewell’s firing, said she is pleased that the settlement of the federal civil rights lawsuit will ensure that officials are held accountable. But, she said, reopening Sewell’s case makes it more difficult to move on.
“Why is it coming back up? That’s what people are wondering,” Downing said. “You still have this up in the air. It’s a little asinine.”
The incident at the center of the trial occurred at around 11:30 p.m. on a Friday in November 2014. Douglas Matthews — then a state corrections officer — was driving home from a meeting at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge and hit two unoccupied parked cars, court records show. Matthews testified Tuesday that he fell asleep at the wheel after working long shifts at two jobs. He had trouble using the brakes, he testified, and continued to drive the remaining few blocks to his home.
Matthews reported the accident directly to a Pocomoke City police lieutenant, Lynell Green, who in turn called Sewell, court records show.
Davitt, the state prosecutor, pointed out in his opening statement that all three men were members of the Masons organization.
Sewell concluded that the crash was an accident, and Matthews was not cited. The driver’s insurance covered the cost of the damage.
Sewell, now chief senior investigator in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, served as Pocomoke City’s chief from 2011 until July 2015. He had spent two decades as a police officer in Baltimore.
In his federal civil rights lawsuit filed in January 2016, Sewell said he was forced out after refusing to fire two other black officers: Green and Franklin Savage. Sewell and Savage had filed several racial discrimination complaints against the police department, and later the Worcester County sheriff’s department and the state’s attorney.
Among the incidents alleged: a fake food stamp superimposed with President Barack Obama’s face that was left on a black detective’s desk; a text message sent to the officer that read “What’s ya body count n-----? I’m in double digits”; and an anonymous letter left on the chief’s windshield referring to him as the “smart n----- chief.”
After Sewell was fired, and while his complaints were pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Davitt, the state prosecutor, began investigating his conduct as police chief based in part on information from the state’s attorney, according to court records.
The chief was initially indicted in July 2016 on charges of conspiring to commit misconduct and of misconduct in office tied to his handling of the traffic incident.
During the first trial, Davitt focused on eliciting testimony from other officers who described Sewell’s conduct as “unusual” and out of the ordinary. Sewell testified that he handled the investigation properly and consistent with his discretion as chief.
The jury convicted Sewell of misconduct and acquitted him of conspiring with Green.
In court Tuesday, two officers who initially investigated the 2014 traffic incident told jurors they were troubled by the involvement of Green and Sewell in a minor incident, as well as the direction from the police chief to handle the collision as an accident — and not a hit-and-run.
A few days after the incident, Officer Damien McGlotten testified, he asked Green why no charges had been filed. McGlotten said that Green told him, “Sometimes you look out for people.”
Green’s attorney Joshua Treem called that statement “a lie,” outside the courtroom.
When it was Green’s turn to testify Tuesday, Sewell’s lawyer asked about McGlotten’s suggestion that the leaders of the police department were doing a favor for a friend by not charging him.
“Were you trying to cut Mr. Matthews a break because of the fact that he’s a Mason and you’re a Mason?” Coburn asked Green.
“No, sir,” he responded.
Coburn then asked, “To your knowledge, was Chief Sewell doing that?”
“No, sir,” Green answered.
In its ruling in November, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals said the judge at Sewell’s first trial should have allowed him to call two expert witnesses to testify about a chief’s exercise of discretion in deciding when to make arrests and issue citations.
One of the judges on the three-judge panel went further, writing that he would have barred retrial altogether.
“I am not impressed with the testimony of subordinate officers that their superior officer exercised his discretion in ‘unusual’ ways. The nature of discretion is that it may be exercised in different ways at different times, often without explanation,” Judge Daniel A. Friedman wrote.
“In my view, the state has proven nothing about Sewell’s actual intent but has instead left the entire question to jury speculation without any factual basis.”