They are men now. But on a misty spring night six years ago, they were just boys and bored when they broke into a Chrysler New Yorker in West Baltimore and took it for a joy ride.
Andre. Terrill. Quentin. Duane. With them, sandwiched in the middle of the back seat, a 14-year-old named Simmont "Sam" Thomas nervously tagged along.
What happened that night grew into one of Baltimore's more racially divisive cases of alleged excessive police force. Stopped by Baltimore Police Officer Edward T. Gorwell II, who is white, the five black teens jumped from the car and scattered into Gwynns Falls Park. Gorwell fired one shot, hitting Sam squarely in the back and killing him instantly.
Until 10 days ago, the evidence cast serious doubt on the officer's contention that he was returning fire that night. Four of six witnesses near the park heard only one gunshot, and no gun was found.
Then, on Feb. 10, newly discovered traces of gunpowder residue on Sam's left hand -- he was left-handed -- suggested that he might have fired a gun after all. Prosecutors abruptly dropped their involuntary manslaughter case against Gorwell.
But the four young men with Sam that night recall April 17, 1993, in detail and remain resolute: No one fired at the officer. No one had a gun. Justice has been derailed.
Gunpowder particles notwithstanding, there is much to support their story, including witnesses' testimony, confidential polygraph tests and, they argue, common sense.
"There's no way Sam fired a gun -- I just keep putting the pieces together," Andre Handy said last week, when asked whether he could explain the surprise discovery of the gunpowder.
No more than three yards from Sam when the boy was killed, he is likely the person best equipped to know the truth. "Back then, we was young. We did not have a gun," he said. "It doesn't make sense."
The presence of the gunpowder particles suggests three possibilities: Sam fired a gun at the officer -- or was standing near someone who did.
He fired or was around a gun in the hours leading up to the incident.
Gunpowder particles somehow were transferred to his hand from someone or something else, if inadvertently.
Interviews with those there that night, as well as experts familiar with gunshot residue, suggest that the third theory may be the most likely.
Whatever the source of the residue, in the Rosemont neighborhood where the four young men still live, suspicion is the sentiment of the moment. Words like "conspiracy" and "cover-up" are mentioned in sidewalk conversations. Distrust of police and prosecutors is rife.
"It makes anybody wonder: Was anything tampered with?" said Joyce Taylor, whose son, Duane Thomas, was among the boys with Sam that night. "It's a possibility."
'We were kids'
All four last week said they feel a painful responsibility for what happened to their friend.
"We were kids doing what we weren't supposed to be doing," said Duane, now 21. "There's no way we don't feel guilty about it."
Added Andre: "I'm always asking, why did I go out there that night?"
The five boys emerged from the car and split up in the park as Gorwell gave chase on foot shortly after midnight that evening. Within seconds, Gorwell has testified, a gunshot came from his left and he returned fire. Only two of the boys -- Andre and Sam -- had gone in that direction. Andre was running a few yards ahead of Sam, accord- ing to his court testimony. The officer was about 20 yards away.
Because no gun was found with Sam's body after the shooting, Gorwell's lawyers contend that one of the other boys -- presumably Andre, because he was the only one nearby -- must have stopped, picked up the gun and run off with it.
Apparently to address that speculation, prosecutors a year ago asked Andre to take a polygraph test in preparation for Gorwell's trial, The Sun learned last week.
Did he have a gun that night, Andre was asked, among a dozen other questions. Did Sam have a gun? Were any of the boys carrying firearms? How many shots did he hear?
No one had a gun, Andre insisted. He heard only one shot.
Andre took the test four times. In each case, the results indicated that he was being truthful, said a police source familiar with the testing.
Sam's friends say there are other good reasons to question the defense scenario. It is not plausible that Andre or any of them would have turned and run back toward an officer firing a weapon to search in the unlighted, dark woods for a gun, they argue.
"How are you going to see something lying around in the pitch-black dark?" Duane said. "He wouldn't have stopped, he wouldn't have turned around."
Andre said he didn't stop until he was on the other side of the park -- he felt he was running for his life; all of them did. He and the others say they were not even aware Sam had been shot until the next day.
"I was so scared, I was shaken up," Andre said. He didn't look back.
"I didn't hear a body fall. I didn't hear no 'Help' or 'Oh.' Nothing," he said. Everyone later thought Sam had made his way home.
Andre says he waded across the Gwynns Falls and ran to the nearby home of his cousin, Lamont Robinson.
Robinson recalls that Andre was so drenched, he needed a complete change of clothes -- "socks, shirt, underwear, pants, jacket -- there was no gun." All Andre would say is that a police officer had been chasing him.
Later, as Robinson learned more details of the case and Gorwell's contention that he been shot at, he asked Andre directly if he had a gun that night.
"He said no," Robinson said. "We are real close. He wouldn't have kept it a secret."
The others also denied knowledge of a gun. "Somebody would have said something about it," said Quentin Montague, who also was there.
If Sam did not fire a gun at Gorwell, could the gunpowder residue have come from being around a gun earlier in the day?
Until the gunpowder evidence surfaced, Sam's activities in the hours before his death had never been an issue.
"I don't understand how that could get on his hand," said Duane, his best friend, who was with him throughout that evening. Acquainted with Sam for two years, Duane said he never once saw Sam handle a gun in all the time he knew him.
"I don't even think he liked guns," he said.
"My son was a peaceful person," said Sam's mother, Myra Green. She said he had never been in any trouble with police. "He wasn't into violence," she said.
Sam's last day was a Friday, a school day, Green noted. She remembers that after school, Sam did some homework, played video games and cleaned his room. Then he went out with Duane.
For the next couple of hours, Duane says, they played basketball and pool at the recreation center in Easterwood Park, a couple of blocks away. Around 8 p.m., they returned to Sam's house, where he fixed a snack. A half-hour later, they left to walk a friend to the bus.
Sam's curfew was 10 p.m., a rule he rarely broke, according to his mother. But that night he did.
Duane says he and Sam hung around the neighborhood talking to friends, visiting with people on their front steps. They saw no one with a weapon, he said.
By 11 p.m., they had bumped into Terrill Alexander, a classmate, and then Andre and Quentin, who were a couple of years their senior. All were friends of Duane's but strangers to Sam.
The younger boys quickly got swept up in the older teens' car-theft scheme, according to Duane. Andre, then 16, already had some expertise in stealing cars. He had been in juvenile court three times for auto theft by that time.
"We were scared," Duane remembers. "I think we were all scared. But we weren't even thinking about no guns."
The chance that gunpowder residue was somehow transferred to Sam remains a clear possibility.
Particles taken from a swab of Sam's left hand were invisible under older testing methods in 1993. But a test using a more sophisticated electron microscope two weeks ago revealed them, although in relatively small quantity. The modern equipment was not acquired by the Police Department until four years after Sam's death.
One of the major issues that worried law enforcement officers when the new technology emerged was the microscope's ability to detect even the few particles that might be transferred during casual contact, said Lester Roane, chief engineer for H. P. White Laboratory, a commercial ballistic test laboratory in Harford County.
For instance, particles might be transferred by an officer who is handcuffing a suspect, he said. In his own informal test, Roane said, he once fired a gun, and the next morning handled a file folder. He gave the folder to a secretary, who then tested positive for gunshot residue.
And Baltimore police lab director Ed Koch last week acknowledged that the new evidence, although suggesting that Sam fired or handled a gun, is far from conclusive.
"All we're saying is he had gunpowder residue on his hand," said Koch.
Pub Date: 2/21/99