The Maryland state trooper who shot a Baltimore motorist to death last week after a high-speed chase has told his attorney that he held his fire earlier in the confrontation when he thought the motorist was reaching for a gun.
The "gun" turned out to be car keys.
"In his [the trooper's] mind, that guy was going for a gun," said Michael Marshall, an attorney for the trooper, Chad P. Hymel. "He did not overreact, and that says something about how Hymel is going to react in that situation."
Mr. Marshall said his client's gun fired accidentally just seconds later, while he and Trooper Nicholas J. Over Jr. were trying to force the motorist, Antonio Carlos Towns, to the pavement.
Mr. Towns, a barber shop owner with no criminal record, died at the scene. An autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol in his system. No weapons, drugs or alcohol were found in his car.
The state police investigation of the shooting is continuing. State police spokesman Capt. Johnny Hughes said yesterday that a crime lab check of Trooper Hymel's 9 mm Beretta handgun found it to be "functioning properly, no malfunctions."
Trooper Hymel has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the internal affairs and criminal investigations, which could take another week, police said.
Mr. Marshall is a private attorney who represents police officers through several area Fraternal Order of Police lodges. Because the state police investigations are continuing, he would not allow his client to be interviewed. But he did relate Trooper Hymel's version of the events.
According to Mr. Marshall, Trooper Hymel was not involved in the high-speed chase, which began when Mr. Towns was waved to the curb on Interstate 83 near Mount Carmel Road after his car was clocked on radar going 81 mph.
During the chase, which reached speeds in excess of 100 mph, Trooper Hymel was patrolling the Baltimore Beltway. He listened on his police radio as the pursuit left I-83 north of Hunt Valley and raced down York Road in his direction.
When Mr. Towns' red, 1987 Corvette turned right on Seminary Avenue in Lutherville, then left on Bellona Avenue, Trooper Hymel thought he might be able to head it off. He left the Beltway at Charles Street, Mr. Marshall said, turned north on Charles, then made a U-turn as the southbound Corvette approached.
With the help of a second trooper and a Baltimore County squad car, Trooper Hymel managed to box in the Corvette and cause it to stop on Charles just south of the Beltway.
"He [Trooper Hymel] got out of the car with his gun drawn, which would be appropriate," Mr. Marshall said. The trooper says his double-action semiautomatic was not cocked.
Trooper Hymel approached the Corvette and ordered Mr. Towns out of the car. But "the guy just sits there," Mr. Marshall said. With Trooper Over covering him with his weapon, Trooper Hymel then opened the driver's door, but Mr. Towns "still wouldn't get out."
Mr. Towns "reached between his legs at one point," Mr. Marshall said. "Hymel said he thought he was going for a gun, but he did not overreact." As it turned out, Mr. Towns came up with car keys.
The troopers then pulled Mr. Towns from the car, with Trooper Over holding his left arm, and Trooper Hymel holding his right arm.
"They ordered him to get down on the ground, but he went rigid," Mr. Marshall said.
At this point, Trooper Hymel began to move his gun back toward his holster in order to free up his right hand to deal with Mr. Towns. But at the same instant, Mr. Marshall said, Trooper Over unexpectedly "gave a sharp tug to try to get him [Mr. Towns] down on the ground. When Trooper Over jerked the guy down, everybody kind of lunged forward."
Thrown off balance just as he was trying to holster his gun, Trooper Hymel inadvertently discharged the weapon, Mr. Marshall said. "He did not have the gun in the holster" when the shot fired, he said. The trooper was thrown to his knees.
An autopsy by the state medical examiner's office showed the bullet entered Mr. Towns' lower right side, broke a rib and traveled upward through his chest, severing his aorta.
At first, Mr. Marshall said, Trooper Hymel did not realize it was his gun that fired. It wasn't until he checked his gun and saw that it was cocked that he realized it had discharged. When the troopers rolled Mr. Towns over and saw he had been shot, Trooper Hymel attempted cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Officers at the scene contend that Mr. Towns never spoke during the confrontation, which Mr. Marshall said lasted only three to five seconds from the time they pulled Mr. Towns from the car until the fatal shot was fired.
But Mr. Marshall said a county officer at the scene said Mr. Towns "gave the county officer what he described as a defiant look."
Just why Mr. Towns fled the traffic stop remains a mystery to his friends. Some have suggested he was simply trying to avoid a costly speeding ticket and the inevitable increase in his auto insurance rates.
But to police, his behavior signaled something potentially more serious, and dangerous to officers.
"The majority of police officers in this nation are shot making traffic stops, where they're stopping a violator for a mere traffic violation and the motorist is wanted for another serious offense," said Captain Hughes. "And they do shoot and kill police officers."
Mr. Marshall said his client is "very concerned" about the incident. "He was . . . very shaken up. Most police go through their careers without having to fire their gun in the line of duty."
"The public gets the impression that police officers are all like Dirty Harrys," he said. But in real life, shooting someone "is a traumatic experience; they're not out there to kill people."