Baltimore police Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto, whose routine traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore last February ended in the fatal shooting of a motorist, became the first city officer in memory to be convicted of a crime for shooting in the line of duty.
A jury of seven women and five men pronounced the 40-year-old sergeant guilty of involuntary manslaughter and two counts of reckless endangerment after 5 1/2 hours of deliberations and three weeks of testimony, in a trial that examined just how far an officer can deviate from his training when he believes his life is in danger.
Pagotto faces a maximum of 20 years in prison on the charges when he is sentenced Feb. 27. He is suspended without pay, and a police spokesman said last night that the department would decide whether to hold a termination hearing after sentencing.
Police officials said they could not remember any other officer's being convicted of a crime for a shooting that occurred in the line of duty.
Sylvia Smith, the mother of the victim, 22-year-old Preston E. Barnes, said yesterday she was "very pleased" when a neighbor came running over to tell her the news. "I know [Pagotto] is not out there on the street, and this lets other police officers know this is not going on anymore," she said. She said she was going to her son's grave today to tell him what had happened. "Now he can rest."
Pagotto stood with his hands folded in front of him as each juror stood and reaffirmed the verdict. His fiancee, Tommie Bockner, rocked forward and wept silently.
In a phone interview from his Baltimore County home last night, the 15-year officer said: "I definitely feel hurt. I will never give up on being exonerated. I'm very sorry what happened to Preston Barnes, and I feel dead inside. But I won't give up. I was doing my job."
Said Bockner: "It's not right. It's not fair. Should I raise my kids to be drug dealers? Because apparently they have more rights."
Pagotto and a partner stopped Barnes' car in the 2600 block of Kirk Ave. the night of Feb. 7 because the car appeared to lack a back tag. When Barnes, who the defense said was on a drug-selling mission with two passengers in the car, 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 the car began to accelerate, he fell from it and his gun fired, hitting Barnes in the left armpit and killing him.
The jurors were instructed that there was no evidence Pagotto fired intentionally. But they found he acted with the gross negligence required to support an involuntary manslaughter conviction.
After the verdict, two jurors said the panel felt that Pagotto had the opportunity to handle the situation differently and that a "prudent" police officer would not have done what he had done. "We said that he must be accountable," said juror Jessie McNair, a supervisor with the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice.
Juror Edward Brewer, who works for a civil-engineering firm, said it was understandable that police officers depart from guidelines "a little" from time to time. But he said Pagotto went over the line when he continued toward the car with gun in hand instead of retreating to his vehicle.
"He had a point there where he could have backed up and controlled the situation in another way," Brewer said. "We felt from that point he was reckless in his actions.
"It wasn't easy, because it's a police officer and someone we're supposed to trust for our safety."
Both jurors said the main sticking point during deliberations was how large a role Preston Barnes played in his own death. While all agreed that Barnes contributed by driving away while Pagotto tried to stop him, they finally concluded that Barnes would still be alive if Pagotto had not brought the gun so close.
Several police experts and supervisors testified for the prosecution that Pagotto acted recklessly and dangerously in approaching the car with his gun in hand and holding his finger along the slide of the Glock 9 mm. They said he should have retreated to his car and continued to issue commands with the gun trained on Barnes' Subaru.
The department had retrained officers to hold their fingers under the trigger guard several years ago to prevent accidental shootings.
The trial also was marked by what Pagotto's lawyers said were several threats against him, with one man reportedly saying there would be "dead police officers" if the jury acquitted the sergeant.
But the jurors said that played no part in their decision. "We knew either way we voted there would be people who didn't like it," Brewer said.
Pagotto's lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, called the verdict unfair to police officers who risk their lives daily. "I think it sends a very bad message -- that it doesn't pay to do your job on the Baltimore police force," he said. "It's better to sit back in the district and drink coffee."
He vowed to ask for a new trial and to appeal the conviction.
Prosecutor Lawrence Doan, who had argued to the jury that arrogance, not fear, led Pagotto to shoot Barnes, said: "There are no winners in this kind of case." But he said he hoped other officers would take note. "I hope they're a little more careful about how they do their jobs," he said. "It's a tough job."
Doan would not comment on what sentence he would request from Circuit Judge John Carroll Byrnes. Belsky said he would ask for a suspended sentence and probation before judgment.
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said the verdict showed that police training "does matter."
"It's a sad day for the Barnes family," Frazier said. "It's a sad day for the Police Department. It's a sad day for Sergeant Pagotto. When things like this happen, we promise a thorough and honest investigation and now a jury of peers has spoken."
The last city officer prosecuted for shooting a suspect, Shean D. Camper, was acquitted by a jury in 1994, but found unjustified in shooting at a civil trial this year.
Pub Date: 12/18/96