The Baltimore state's attorney's investigation into an alleged police brutality case was delayed yesterday when five people did not show up for a meeting with investigators.
The people claim to have witnessed an incident July 2 involving Jesse Chapman, a 30-year-old West Baltimore man, and city police. Mr. Chapman's death touched off a round of community protests fueled by reports that he had been beaten to death by police. A preliminary autopsy report indicates that Mr. Chapman did not die from blunt force trauma, according to city police.
Yesterday, the witnesses -- who were asked to go to the city state's attorney's office to provide statements -- instead met privately with a local minister. They said they did not provide the statements because they don't trust authorities and felt intimidated by city police.
"We certainly want to cooperate with the Police Department, but we want the witnesses to feel comfortable," said the minister, Elder Clyde Harris, who lives near where Mr. Chapman was arrested in the 1100 block of N. Fulton Ave.
"You can't classify this as impeding," he said. "This is an important case. We want it to be successful. . . . We're carrying the agenda here."
According to Mr. Harris, the witnesses who were supposed to meet with an assistant state's attorney yesterday were James E. Breakfield, Joseph Whynder, Curtis Faulcon, Wanita Nance and Evette Caldwell.
At a community meeting last night First Mount Calvary Baptist Church on Fulton Avenue, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke urged the witnesses to come forward with whatever information they have.
"We need first-hand information. If we don't get that, this thing will drag and drag and drag," Mr. Schmoke told several of the witnesses who attended the meeting. "Please, please, I ask you to work with the state's attorney on this."
The witnesses agreed with a proposal by the mayor to meet with investigators at another location in the Western District. A date for that meeting has not yet been scheduled.
They also told the mayor that they don't want to meet individually with investigators and instead want to provide information as a group.
Several of the witnesses claimed to have seen five Western District police officers beat Mr. Chapman severely after his arrest, then throw him into a police wagon. The officers had arrested Mr. Chapman after a fight he had with his girlfriend.
Autopsy results have been inconclusive. Police officials, as well as the mayor, have said that a key factor in the investigation is Mr. Chapman's use of crack cocaine, which coupled with his asthma condition could have contributed to his death.
The night before his death, Mr. Chapman went to a hospital because of an asthma attack brought on by smoking crack, the " mayor said.
Donald J. Giblin, the assistant state's attorney who was supposed to meet with the witnesses yesterday, said he was surprised that they didn't go to his office.
"I didn't meet with anyone," Mr. Giblin said. "They were scheduled to be here and they did not appear. I have not been given an explanation by any of the parties."
The no-shows angered representatives from the city's police union, who said the five officers have been unfairly cast under a cloud of suspicion. Each of the officers is assigned to administrative desk duties while the investigation is under way.
Union officials have scheduled a news conference for this morning to voice support for the officers. They will also ask the state's attorney to charge the witnesses with giving false statements to investigators, said Officer Gary McLhinney, * *TC national member of the Fraternal Order of Police.
"We are going to denounce the obvious politicizing of this issue by area politicians," Officer McLhinney said, arguing that officers were not pulled from the street until after U.S. Rep. Kweisi Mfume interceded.
A police union statement released yesterday said in part: "The handling of this incident from within and outside of this department is disgusting."
Residents in the Sandtown community held three days of protests last week, calling for an independent investigation and for the five officers to be removed from the street.
The FBI announced Friday that it had begun a civil rights investigation. Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier reassigned the officers to desk duty, saying he was concerned about tensions surrounding the incident.