A jury delivered a searing verdict yesterday against a Baltimore housing authority police officer who fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old male on Thanksgiving Day 1999, awarding more than $7 million in damages to the teen's estate and to his father.
The decision came on the fourth day of the civil lawsuit in Circuit Court against Officer Kenneth M. Dean III, 33, who last year was cleared by a grand jury of criminal wrongdoing in Eli McCoy's killing.
After deliberating for 3 1/2 hours, the six-member jury concluded that Dean, who still works for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City police, had used excessive force, had battered McCoy and had acted with malice -- an argument McCoy's lawyers based in part on witness testimony that McCoy smirked as he faced Dean's semiautomatic pistol.
"At least he can rest in peace," said Elton L. McCoy, the boy's father, who doubled over and cried yesterday as attorneys described the events leading to his son's death. "I hope this sends a lesson to everyone out there that police officers can't just go around shooting unarmed people."
The verdict is the culmination of a case that symbolized residents' outrage over what they saw as police brutality in Baltimore's poorest and most violent areas. Days after McCoy's death, hundreds of angry people gathered in protest in the Walbrook neighborhood of West Baltimore, where McCoy was killed a block from his home.
McCoy's lawyer, A. Dwight Pettit, assured the jury the case was not meant as a blanket attack on police officers. However, Pettit did suggest that Dean's fellow officers had invoked a "blue code of silence" to protect him.
Dean's lawyer, Samuel M. Riley, urged the jury not to make police officers afraid to defend themselves "for fear they'll be pulled into the courtroom."
Dean had testified that McCoy appeared to be going for a weapon rather than surrendering. "You've heard witnesses say that Eli McCoy was scared," Riley said in his closing argument. "But someone else was scared that day. Scared that his life was coming real close to ending -- if he didn't do the right thing."
As he walked dejectedly from the courtroom yesterday evening, Dean said he still believed he had done the right thing. "I mean, is it worth it to be a police officer in this city, when you do everything right?"
It was just past 10 a.m. Thanksgiving Day 1999 when Eli McCoy's father sent him to a nearby store. On the way, McCoy and another youth allegedly snatched $20 from a woman. She called police and described her attackers.
Dean, who was off duty but had his weapon, heard the call and responded to help city police officers, a common practice. McCoy was spotted and ran, leading police on a chase that ended with McCoy cornered in the back yard of a house in the 2800 block of W. North Ave.
What happened next was the crux of the trial. Witnesses said McCoy's hands were in the air before the first shot was fired. In a taped interview played for the jury, a witness, Deserie Brown, said McCoy obeyed the officers' commands to kneel and put his hands up, but was also talking back.
Brown said she heard Mccoy say, "... I don't have a weapon. I haven't done anything. What, you gonna shoot me?' At that time I heard a shot. Bam." she said.
Pettit told the jury that the chase and McCoy's subsequent sassing incited Dean: "I suggest to you from this evidence that this death shot was born of malice. That there was an intent to kill this young man because he smirked."
But Dean's lawyer asked the jury to focus on the state medical examiner's testimony that McCoy's left hand was in his pants pocket when he was shot, supporting Dean's contention that McCoy appeared to be going for a weapon."[Dean] was trained to react," Riley said, stressing the officer's experience. "Over 350 arrests and a smirk is going to cause this officer to take somebody's life?"