The manslaughter case against Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto went to the jury yesterday, with a central question to be answered: whether Pagotto was acting from legitimate fear or pure recklessness when he shot a fleeing suspect.
In a contentious afternoon of closing arguments, attorneys used emotion as well as fact to appeal to the jury. Prosecutor Lawrence Doan argued that if police were allowed to ignore their training in routine traffic stops, every citizen could be in danger. Defense lawyer Henry Belsky said that the more officers are second-guessed when they take a wrong step, the fewer criminals they will catch.
Pagotto, 40, is charged in the killing of Preston E. Barnes, who was driving a Subaru that Pagotto and his partner stopped in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. the night of Feb. 7.
When Barnes, allegedly on a drug-selling mission with two passengers, did not respond to the officers' commands to get out, Pagotto said, he reached into the open car door and grabbed Barnes with his left hand, wielding his gun in his right.
Pagotto testified that as the car accelerated, he fell forward and his gun fired, hitting Barnes, 22, in the left armpit and killing him.
Police experts testified for the prosecution that Pagotto's actions were reckless and dangerous. They said he should have taken cover behind his vehicle instead of approaching Barnes' car with his gun out.
But Charles "Joe" Key Sr., an expert on weapons, tactics and the use of deadly force who wrote the Baltimore police guidelines, took the stand last week in Pagotto's defense, saying the guidelines are "discretionary" and that Pagotto acted reasonably when he went against them.
Doan told the jury yesterday that Pagotto had reached into a moving car to try to pull the suspect out, violating guidelines he had demonstrated on training tests that he knew perfectly well.
"The defense wants you to believe this is a case of fear and survival on the part of a Baltimore police officer," said Doan. "This case was arrogance and gross negligence. This case was the case of a police officer who thought he was Superman."
Doan said Key originally offered to testify for the state but switched sides when prosecutors refused to pay him for his testimony. Key said on the stand last week that his opinion had not changed since the case began.
Belsky repeated themes he stressed throughout the trial: Preston Barnes caused his own death by putting a police officer in peril, and police guidelines don't reflect the life-and-death reality of the streets that officers must deal with every day.
He also talked about the pomp-and-circumstance funerals when confrontations turn out the other way and the police officer lies dead from a shooting. "None of my clients wants that benefit," he said.
The attorney invoked an old police saying: "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six."
He laid the blame for Barnes' death on Barnes.
The prosecution differed.
"The fact is, there are a number of sides to every human being, including Preston Barnes," Doan countered. "The last time I checked the criminal code, ladies and gentlemen, a drug possession charge did not carry the death penalty."
After the jurors left for the night, Judge John Carroll Byrnes announced to the crowded courtroom that threats had been made against some of the parties.
"Anyone who makes the slightest hint of a threat to anyone in this case will find himself sitting in the defendant's chair," Byrnes warned.
In one instance last week, a man who had been sitting in the courtroom reportedly approached Belsky, Pagotto lawyer Kimberly Kelly and Gary McLhinney, president of the union that represents Baltimore police officers, as they left the courthouse.
Belsky said the man told them there would be "dead people on the street, there'll be dead police officers," if the jury acquitted Pagotto.
Jurors are to begin deliberations this morning.
Pub Date: 12/17/96