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Shooting was self-defense, officer's lawyer says in opening statement


As a Baltimore police officer went on trial yesterday in the 1994 fatal shooting of an unarmed suspect, the case's key issue quickly emerged. Jurors will have to decide whether Officer Shean D. Camper shot Jerrod Dwayne Wagstaff from a distance, as the prosecution charges, or during a struggle, as he claims.

During his opening statement to a jury in Baltimore Circuit Court, defense lawyer Henry L. Belsky said the 24-year-old officer chased down Mr. Wagstaff and, during a break in a tussle in a dark side yard between two houses, shot him in response to a threatening move. He said the officer feared the suspect was armed.

But prosecutor Edwin Wenck suggested the officer is guilty of manslaughter because witnesses will place the officer on a front porch, firing as Mr. Wagstaff fled into the darkness of the yard. He also hinted that police may have tampered with the crime scene to provide support for the officer's story.

"Just because you are a police officer and you have a gun, you can't go around firing willy-nilly," Mr. Wenck told jurors. "Who will police the police but the citizens? And that's you."

Officer Camper had been on the force a little more than three years when he shot Mr. Wagstaff on May 6, 1994.

Responding to a report of gunshots, the officer and his partner drove to the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. in Northeast Baltimore, and found Mr. Wagstaff and two other men standing in an alley.

As the officers approached to question the men, Mr. Wagstaff, 25, ran.

Officer Camper chased Mr. Wagstaff down the block until the suspect darted between two houses.

At this point, the prosecution and defense theories of the case diverge.

The officer is expected to testify that he followed the suspect into the side yard and grabbed him, starting a scuffle. Mr. Belsky said that during a momentary break in the fight, his client turned around and realized he was in the dark and isolated area between the houses. When Officer Camper turned again, he saw the suspect in an "offensive position" and shot him in self-defense, the attorney said.

Mr. Belsky said the officer's gun, which showed scrapes and traces of galvanized metal that might have come from a chain link fence, lend support to the claims of a struggle. Also, he said, the casing from the officer's bullet was found near the rear of the side yard.

Mr. Wenck, the prosecutor, hinted yesterday that the casing may have been moved from the porch to the side yard. He called as a witness Michael Bailey, a crime lab technician who said the crime scene seemed to have been poorly managed.

The prosecutor also suggested that officers may have improperly handled the dying man's body. "They were flipping him like a piece of meat," Mr. Wenck said.

Attempting to cast further doubt on the officer's assertion that he shot the suspect at close range, Mr. Wenck said tests showed the bullet apparently ricocheted off the fence before striking the suspect.

Jurors heard tape recordings of several residents calling in reports of gunshots, and of police radio transmissions that included Officer Camper shouting to the suspect, "I am the police. Get down. . . . I've got a suspect down."

As testimony began, the spectators gallery in Judge Elsbeth L. Bothe's courtroom was nearly empty. The atmosphere was far different from the last time a city officer was on trial for shooting a suspect -- when officers and protesters packed the courtroom for Officer Edward T. Gorwell II's 1993 manslaughter trial.

Officer Gorwell's trial ended in mistrial when a juror failed to show up during deliberations and was disqualified.

A judge later ruled the officer could not be retried.

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