RIVERDALE -- Saying he was "glad to be alive," a man once charged as a cop killer proclaimed his innocence yesterday and accused Prince George's County police of taking justice into their own hands by brutalizing him during his arrest.
Jeffrey C. Gilbert, 26, of Lanham, who was released from jail Monday after prosecutors dropped a murder charge against him, said he has been interviewed by FBI agents who have begun a civil rights investigation.
"In this country a man should be considered innocent until proven guilty," said Mr. Gilbert, who spoke publicly for the first time. "The police should never take justice into their own hands." The case has begun to attract national interest and some have compared Mr. Gilbert to Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.
About a dozen television cameras faced him as he read stoically from a prepared statement at his attorneys' office in Riverdale. Mr. Gilbert, who is free on $50,000 bond, still faces an unrelated charge of robbery with a deadly weapon.
"The prosecutor's decision to drop the [murder] charge proves what I've been saying all along: That I am innocent and I had nothing to do with the killing," he said.
Prince George's police said they arrested Mr. Gilbert April 28 after three witnesses identified him as the man who fatally shot county police Cpl. John Novabilski outside a Kentland liquor store two days earlier.
During that arrest, police said Mr. Gilbert "violently resisted." His attorneys claim the officers unjustifiably beat him, leaving him with a broken nose, a concussion and a broken blood vessel in his brain.
The charges against Mr. Gilbert began to unravel May 29 after Ralph McLean, a man wanted for wounding two D.C. police officers and killing an FBI agent, fatally shot himself with Corporal Novabilski's service pistol. The officer's killer stole the weapon after the slaying, police said.
Also found near Mr. McLean's body was a MAC-11 fully automatic assault pistol that police believe was used to kill Corporal Novabilski.
Jack B. Johnson, Prince George's county's top prosecutor, dropped the murder charge against Mr. Gilbert after learning that Mr. McLean -- described as a self-avowed police-hater -- was carrying the incriminating weapons.
But police yesterday were not conceding their case against Mr. Gilbert and said they were continuing to investigate possible links between him and Mr. McLean.
"All I can say is we're still pursuing the investigation into Corporal Novabilski's death. There may be more to come," said Royce Holloway, a Prince George's County police spokesman.
Yesterday, Mr. Gilbert told reporters that he never knew Mr. McLean. He said he has been to the Kentland liquor store where the officer was slain, but was at his girlfriend's apartment the night of the shooting.
Terry Roberts, one of Mr. Gilbert's attorneys, said police got conflicting eyewitness accounts of the shooting, including some that indicated a masked man shot Corporal Novabilski. Mr. McLean is thought to have worn a mask in his attacks.
Attorneys representing Mr. Gilbert said they plan to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, either in Baltimore or Greenbelt, alleging that the Prince George's police violated his civil rights.
The Baltimore office of the FBI began an investigation about two weeks ago into whether Mr. Gilbert's civil rights were violated, said Larry K. Foust, a spokesman. He said the results of the investigation will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will decide what action to take.
Civil rights investigations can result in indictments of police officers. Typically the FBI launches such an investigation at the urging of either the Department of Justice or the U.S. attorney's office, Mr. Foust said.
"Obviously the Department of Justice is concerned with this case," Mr. Foust said. "If they in fact feel there's culpability, they'll advise us to go ahead." Sources said that could mean criminal charges against the officers involved in the beating.
Mr. Gilbert's attorneys said they also expect to file a lawsuit on behalf of his mother and stepfather. The couple was taken from their home in handcuffs shortly after Mr. Gilbert's arrest and unduly detained at the police station before being released, they said.
"It's typical Prince George's County," said Robert Lee Green, Mr. Gilbert's stepfather. "A lot of police brutality goes on here. But this time they're going to have to pay for it."
Mr. Gilbert, who is unemployed, told reporters he couldn't remember many details of the beating. His attorneys claim he was repeatedly kicked in the groin and kidney areas, and was at one point shoved head-first through a wall in a hallway.
Police said yesterday they are conducting an internal affairs investigation of the beating and couldn't discuss details.