Evidence clears officer 6 years after teen's death; New test backs claim of Gorwell self-defense


Six years after being indicted for manslaughter in the shooting death of an apparently unarmed teen-ager, and minutes before the start of his second trial, Baltimore police officer Edward T. Gorwell II was unexpectedly cleared yesterday when new evidence emerged in the case.

Surprised city prosecutors decided to drop the charges, but left open the possibility that Gorwell might be charged again.

Gorwell has always contended that he heard a gunshot and fired in self-defense when he killed 14-year-old Simmont Donta Thomas on April 17, 1993. The teen was fleeing with others from a stolen car in a wooded area at the edge of Gwynns Falls Park.

But no gun was found at the scene, and no evidence of gunshot residue was found on the teen's hands. Several witnesses said they had heard only one shot. Gorwell was indicted on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

Late yesterday afternoon, in the midst of jury selection, a prosecutor entered the courtroom and conferred briefly with all of the attorneys and Baltimore Circuit Judge John N. Prevas.

"Because of some late-breaking developments, the state has elected not to go forward with this case," the judge told a courtroom full of stunned observers. Later, the judge said, "This is the most Perry Mason-like thing I have seen in my 26 years in the courthouse."

A more sophisticated forensic test to detect the presence of gunshot residue on the hands of the victim was performed Wednesday night by a city police technician on his own initiative. The tests analyzed the results of residue collected on a swab of the victim's hands after he was killed. The swabs were kept as evidence.

The results showed the presence of gunpowder residue on the teen-ager's left hand, according to police. Thomas was left-handed, defense lawyers said.

The new test had not been requested by prosecutors, and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy said yesterday that she would seek retesting by an independent laboratory.

"The only thing I can say is that we want to do everything we can to assure the family that the test results are the same in terms of the recent test and any re-analysis," Jessamy said.

She said the review over the next few days could include a look at other cases that might be affected. Typically, prosecutors do not retest gunshot residue evidence.

"We have had no reason to retest evidence," she said.

Sitting at the defense table, Gorwell showed no reaction to the news at first, then sighed deeply as the jurors, dismissed by the judge, began to file from the room.

"It means the case is dismissed -- you're free," attorney Henry Belsky said to the stone-faced officer.

A father's frustration

From the side of the courtroom where he had patiently watched jury selection for two days, Simmont Thomas' father, Dennis Green, waded through the departing crowd, threw his hands into the air and asked the prosecutor in a shaken voice, "What's going on?"

Relatives of crime victims routinely make statements at the end of a trial when there is a conviction, but with yesterday's extraordinary turn of events, the judge extended the courtesy to Green.

Pacing, his hands pressed together as in prayer, Green spoke to the court in a trembling voice.

"As things stand, it hurts -- it hurts a lot," he said. "My son's gone, my family went through hell."

He offered to pay to have more tests conducted. Then he turned to Gorwell.

"I don't hate you," he said. "But as long as I live I will know in my heart my son did not shoot at you. I will never give up trying to find some evidence."

Then he strode from the courtroom.

The surprise ending short-circuited one of the more controversial and racially tinged cases of deadly force in recent Baltimore police history. Gorwell is white. The teen, who was shot in the back, was black.

Yet when the case returned to court this week, it received a relatively quiet reception. Sign-carrying protesters who called for Gorwell to be charged with murder during the first trial were nowhere to be seen. And Green was the only relative of the dead teen in the courtroom.

'You're kidding'

The first indication that the day might take an unexpected turn occurred around 10: 30 a.m., when Assistant State's Attorney William McCollum arrived and initiated a whispered discussion with Gorwell's lawyers, Belsky and Kimberleigh Alley. Belsky's eyes widened, a hand went to his chest and he was overheard saying, "You're kidding."

McCollum then notified the judge's law clerk that it was "very important" that the group meet with the judge right away.

As the day unfolded, McCollum was frequently called out of the courtroom and handed notes. Whispered conversations became the norm. The attorneys, under a gag order by the judge, refused to reveal the substance of the discussions or even hint at what was happening.

In private, prosecutors were asking for a continuance, but Judge Prevas later said he refused the request because jurors were already being impaneled in the case and a postponement would have backed up an already gridlocked courthouse.

"Given the present crisis, we just couldn't tie up the courtroom," Prevas said last night. "I'd have been in a tough position to start another trial.

"Here, there's a crisis. Certain luxuries such as continuances don't exist," particularly for a case that's this old, he said.

At 3: 05 p.m. with the judge's announcement, the import became clear. The case was over.

Gorwell, 29, appeared stunned as he walked from the courtroom. His first trial in 1993 ended in a mistrial after a juror failed to show up one day for deliberations. Judge Ellen M. Heller ruled that Gorwell could not be retried because it would violate constitutional protections against double jeopardy. But the Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that he could be retried, a decision later reinforced by federal appeals courts and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tears of freedom

After rising from his chair yesterday, Gorwell embraced his wife and his aunt, his eyes tearing. Had he been convicted, the officer faced up to 10 years in prison.

"I felt hopeful, but there was a lot of anxiety today," Gorwell said. "Now I feel sheer joy. I'm glad it's over with."

"This man is innocent," Belsky said. "This man could have been in jail for the past six years."

Gorwell has been assigned to administrative duty since 1993 and works in the Police Department's computer center.

The new test, conducted Wednesday evening by crime lab technician Daniel Van Gelder, involved a sophisticated, $150,000 electron microscope that detects the presence of barium and antimony -- substances found in gunpowder.

The department installed the microscope in 1997, four years after Gorwell's first trial. An earlier test using less sophisticated equipment revealed no gunshot residue.

Prosecutors said that Van Gelder told them he had been preparing for the trial when he noticed that the new machine had not been used in the Gorwell case and decided to perform a new test. Van Gelder could not be reached for comment last night.

At a news conference late yesterday, Jessamy said: "I am here because we want to give the public confidence that we will do whatever we have to do in our efforts to assure that whatever we present in court is evidence that can be relied upon by juries or judges."

Timothy J. Doory, the original prosecutor of the Gorwell case and now a Baltimore district judge, said last night that had he had a positive residue test for Thomas' hands, he would have been reluctant to present the case against Gorwell to a grand jury for indictment.

"That's difficult to say without assessing all the evidence before me, but I probably would have been very reluctant to do so," Doory said.

FOP vindicated

Officer Gary McLhinney, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said: "This proves that Gorwell was 100 percent right. We spent tens of thousands of dollars on this case. The state's attorney's office is quick to prosecute cops."

Police Department spokesman Robert W. Weinhold Jr. said: "It appears as if modern technology has brought investigators closer to the truth. Officer Gorwell's status has not changed, however, the investigation now moves from criminal to administrative."

Gorwell still faces an internal administrative investigation by the department.

Sun staff writers Peter Hermann, Joe Mathews and Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/12/99

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