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Allegations of racism that divided a small Maryland town and its police department remain unresolved

The allegations of racism that divided a Maryland town more than three years ago won’t be resolved any time soon.

In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Maryland’s state prosecutor said that he plans to retry a misdemeanor misconduct case against Kelvin Sewell, Pocomoke City’s first black police chief. Sewell was fired in 2015 after he refused to dismiss two black officers who accused the Eastern Shore city’s police department of racial discrimination.

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The statement by State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt comes after the Maryland Court of Special Appeals overturned Sewell’s misconduct conviction. The state had accused Sewell of mishandling a motor vehicle crash in 2014, when a driver struck two unoccupied cars parked in Pocomoke City. Sewell was charged after failing to issue a citation to the driver, who said he fell asleep at the wheel. No one was injured in the incident.

“It’s likely we will retry the case,” Davitt said. “A decision will be made within the next few weeks. I spoke to the individuals whose cars were damaged. There are other witnesses who had to testify. We want to make sure everybody is available.”

The appeals court ruled Nov. 29 that the case should be remanded for a new trial, concluding that the Worcester County Circuit Court made a mistake when it did not allow two police experts called by Sewell’s defense attorneys to testify during the December 2016 trial. Sewell’s attorneys argued the experts should have been allowed to explain officer discretion in traffic cases.

Sewell’s attorneys applauded the ruling.

“The Court of Special Appeals correctly recognized the importance of a law enforcement official’s ability to exercise independent judgment and discretion,” said Lloyd Liu, one of Sewell’s lawyers.

Sewell, who is now chief senior investigator for the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, said that he was “extremely grateful to the appeals court for taking such care in considering my case and for safeguarding my rights for a fair trial. It renews a faith I’ve always had in our justice system.”

Sewell’s supporters contend he was fired in retaliation for refusing to dismiss two black officers — then-Lt. Lynell Green and then-detective Franklin Savage — who filed complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describing a hostile working environment. City officials have adamantly denied those allegations of racial discrimination.

In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated the officers’ complaints and determined there were “reasonable-cause findings” in the case, according to an EEOC statement. After unsuccessful talks aimed at conciliation between the parties, the EEOC referred the charges to the Justice Department.

In a separate action in 2016, Sewell, Green and Savage filed a lawsuit in federal court against Pocomoke City and its police department, claiming that they “were mocked, threatened, demeaned, demoted, punished, falsely accused of misconduct, ostracized and humiliated because of their race.”

In 2016, the Justice Department asked to join the civil rights lawsuit filed by Sewell, Savage and Green. In a 26-page filing, the Justice Department charged that the Worcester County sheriff and the state of Maryland subjected the officers to a hostile work environment.

The lawsuit, which also named as defendants the city’s former manager, its mayor, the Worcester County sheriff’s office, the state’s attorney’s office and the Maryland State Police, came seven months after Sewell was fired.

The lawsuit described an “unchecked pattern and practice of virulent” racial discrimination, including an alleged incident in which someone left a bloody deer tail on Savage’s windshield and a claim that in 2014 Savage “found in his desk drawer a fake food stamp on which an image of President Obama had been imposed.”

On May 31, 2014, according to the lawsuit, Savage received a text message that read, “What’s ya body count n-----? I’m in double digits.”

City officials denied the allegations. That lawsuit is still pending in federal court.

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On July 16, 2016, Sewell and Green were indicted by a Worcester County grand jury on charges of misconduct and conspiracy for allegedly interfering with the investigation of the 2014 motor vehicle crash.

State prosecutors argued that the driver, Douglas Matthews, a local correctional officer, was not charged because he, Sewell and Green, who also responded to the scene, were all members of Prince Hall Masonic Lodge.

Sewell’s attorneys argued that his handling of the case “was reasonable under the circumstance and consistent with the routine discretion that a small-town chief exercises,” according to court documents.

Sewell was convicted in November 2016 of misconduct by a Worcester County Circuit Court jury. He was acquitted of the conspiracy charge.

In December 2016, Green was found guilty by a Worcester County jury of conspiracy to commit misconduct in office. Green was acquitted of the misconduct charge.

The charge of misconduct in office is a misdemeanor, Davitt said. There is no set sentence if convicted on that charge, he said. “Even though it’s a misdemeanor, the state says the sentence is any penalty that is not cruel or unusual. That is for the court to determine.” Davitt said the case would be set for a new trial in Worcester County Circuit Court.

He denied the misconduct case was punitive.

“It was not retaliatory, and there was no evidence it was,” said Davitt, who said the case was filed after the civil rights lawsuit because other parties had asked him to wait. “I have been a prosecutor for 25 years. I’ve never been accused of anything.”

Davitt said his email was flooded for weeks accusing him of retaliation in filing the charges. “They put my name out denouncing me . . . It’s true the filing came several months after that, but the investigative meeting we had with Green came before the civil filing.”

Regarding the appeals court decision, Davitt said, “I’m disappointed it was remanded. The court made a point of saying there was no evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. We brought the charges and felt it was the right thing to do.”

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