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Lab backs police on test; Pa. results confirm gunshot residue on hand of teen killed; Defense says 'case is over'; Officer shot youth near a stolen car in April 1993 incident


The defense case of Baltimore police Officer Edward T. Gorwell II was further bolstered yesterday with test results from a Pennsylvania laboratory, which confirmed the presence of gunshot residue on the hand of the teen-ager Gorwell shot and killed April 17, 1993.

The results, which verified a police lab test last week, appeared to reinforce Gorwell's long-standing contention that he was returning fire when he shot 14-year-old Simmont "Sam" Thomas, though no gun was found at the scene.

"We have to look at how this would be viewed by a trier of fact," Deputy State's Attorney Sharon May said yesterday. "It changes the theory of the case totally."

She said her office will receive a written report of the results today. It probably will be several days before prosecutors decide whether to reinstate involuntary manslaughter charges against Gorwell, she added.

The officer's retrial was short-circuited last week -- just as a jury was about to be seated -- when a police lab technician retested the 1993 swabs of Thomas' hands using sophisticated new equipment. The test revealed gunshot residue that had been invisible in earlier tests. Stunned by the development and unable to get a continuance, prosecutors decided to drop the charges.

"I really don't think from a legal standpoint there's anything for prosecutors to do," Henry Belsky, Gorwell's attorney, said yesterday on learning of the test results. "The case is over."

Belsky has maintained that one of the four suspects fleeing with Thomas from a stolen car in Gwynns Falls Park that night probably picked up the gun. The other suspects were not found until many hours later -- too late for gunshot residue tests to be meaningful.

"It would seem to me that with this evidence, the Police Department ought to initiate an investigation against the suspects at least as vigilantly as they did against Officer Gorwell to determine what, if any crimes, including obstruction of justice, have been made to make Officer Gorwell go through the hell he's been through," Belsky said.

The case is one of the more notable incidents of deadly force in recent Baltimore police history, prompting accusations of racism against the department from African-Americans. Gorwell is white. The teen-ager, who was shot in the back, was black.

The Pennsylvania lab test -- conducted by RJ Lee Group in Monroeville -- was the third test in a week. After getting surprise results the night of Feb. 10, Baltimore crime lab director Ed Koch said he had the sample retested by a different technician on a different piece of equipment. The results were the same, he said.

A. J. Schwoeble, manager of forensic science special projects at RJ Lee, verified that his lab's test results matched those in Baltimore, but declined to make further comment yesterday.

Both lab directors said the tests found two "unique" particles on Thomas' left hand, meaning that each particle contained antimony, barium and lead, a combination of substances found only in gunpowder. The tests also showed more than 100 "distinguishable" particles on Thomas' hand -- individual particles of each chemical or combinations of at least two.

The threshold for measuring particles as gunshot residue as defined by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences requires at least one unique particle and at least six distinguishable particles, said Koch. Even so, he said the results do not prove conclusively that Thomas fired a gun.

"If those three elements are fused and on a hand, somebody has fired a gun or been around a gun," Koch said. "All we're saying is he had gunpowder residue on his hand."

Mark Germani, laboratory director of Micromaterials Research Co. near Chicago, expressed doubts yesterday about the results, saying two unique particles seemed low for someone who had fired a weapon. But on learning of more than 100 distinguishable particles also found on Thomas' hand, he said: "That's sounding more like gunshot residue."

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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