A Baltimore Circuit Court jury yesterday awarded $125,000 to a woman who said a city police officer beat her three years ago in an East Baltimore public housing project.
The jury deliberated only 50 minutes before finding in favor of Cathy R. Wynder, who said officers called her a "nobody" and hurled a racial insult when called to arrest her estranged boyfriend on assault charges.
Ms. Wynder, 29, also said James W. Starleper -- then an Eastern District officer, now a Northeast District sergeant -- spat on her and ground her face into the dirt while arresting her outside her home in the 1100 block of Webb Court in Latrobe Homes.
Ms. Wynder's lawyer and several jurors said the verdict sends a message to the Police Department.
"This is not a case about broken bones or broken teeth. It's a case about moral outrage," said William F. Gately, representing Ms. Wynder in her suit against Sergeant Starleper and two other officers. "My argument is this woman is entitled to the same treatment as any other woman, whether she lives in Webb Court or Bolton Hill or Ashburton or Guilford."
It was an argument readily embraced by jurors, who said the verdict sends the message that police should treat all residents, even those in the city's less-affluent neighborhoods, with respect.
"I feel this is just a start, to let other officers know they can't do this," said juror Stanley Slide. "I live in East Baltimore, and I see this kind of stuff happen all the time.
"Police should be more sympathetic and less cocky and arrogant," Mr. Slide said. "That's what this case was about: arrogance."
Juror Kyle Hollowell said the case showed that police are quick to "brush off" lower-income residents. Ms. Wynder, who was four months' pregnant at the time of the incident, smiled at family members as the verdict was announced. Afterward she said only, "The point is the officers lie, too, and they can get caught like anybody else."
During the four-day trial, Ms. Wynder testified that after her estranged boyfriend had been arrested in the early hours of May 17, 1990, she attempted to volunteer some information to police, only to be called a "little nobody" and told to "shut up" by Officer Jennifer Boyle.
Ms. Wynder said that after she responded, "I'm just as much a somebody as you are," then-Officer Starleper threw her off her porch, grabbed her by her hair and ground her face into the dirt. She also said her head was banged against a police cruiser.
Sergeant Starleper testified during the trial that Ms. Wynder slapped him before he arrested her. Upon hearing cries that the woman was pregnant, he took care to hold her down to the ground by her chest, he said, but the woman bit him on the leg. He denied hitting her.
Ms. Wynder was charged with malicious destruction, disorderly conduct and two counts of assault, but at trial she was not found guilty of any of the charges, testimony showed.
The jury in the civil case ruled yesterday that Sergeant Starleper and Officer Boyle were liable for violating Ms. Wynder's constitutional rights and for malicious prosecution. The jury also found Sergeant Starleper liable for battery and false imprisonment. The jury ordered the officers to pay compensatory damages of $35,000 and punitive damages of $90,000 for a total of $125,000 -- the figure demanded by Mr. Gately in his closing argument.
A third officer named in the suit, Steven Pagatto, was dismissed from the case by Judge Richard T. Rombro.
The jury's verdict appeared to stun the officers. Officer Boyle, a member of the force for seven years who is now assigned to the department's Youth Section, declined to comment. Sergeant Starleper, who said he has been on the force since 1982 without being accused of misconduct, called the ruling "very upsetting."
"I don't treat one person better in one neighborhood than someone who lives in another neighborhood. This was a moneymaker, that's all this was," he said. "Am I supposed to be abused as a police officer? Am I supposed to be beat and not do anything about it?
"The people believe the police are the criminals now because of the Rodney King incident [the videotaped police beating of a black man in Los Angeles]."
The city has historically indemnified officers for judgments in cases where the officer was acting within the scope of his duties. Randall J. Craig Jr., a lawyer for Sergeant Starleper and Officer Boyle, could not say yesterday whether his clients will have to pay the damages.