Prosecutors began Baltimore's first death penalty trial in six years by proclaiming yesterday that a 22-year-old West Baltimore man is a "cop killer" who executed a police detective during an ambush outside a city tavern.
"Folks, this ain't a case of 'whodunit,'" prosecutor Donald Giblin told the Circuit Court jury. "It's a case of who did what."
Giblin, an assistant state's attorney for Baltimore, said in his opening statement that Jovan J. House told police in the hours after the slaying Nov. 23, 2002, of Detective Thomas G. Newman that he was involved in the killing. Two other men are also charged in the killing -- Raymond Saunders, 22, and Anthony A. Brown, 34 -- and will be tried later.
House's lawyers laid the foundation of their case by arguing that Newman, a 12-year veteran of the city police, was not on duty when he was slain, meaning the case is not death-penalty eligible.
In order for the state to seek the death penalty, prosecutors have to prove to the jury that Newman, 37, was killed in the line of duty. "Thomas Newman wasn't on duty," defense lawyer Mark Van Bavel repeated at least four times during his opening statement.
Giblin is expected to argue that when Newman was killed, his shift was over, but he assumed his police duties at the instant he saw his assailants with a gun and therefore witnessed a crime in progress.
If the jury convicts House of murder, it will then decide whether Newman was on duty at the time of his death before determining his sentence.
Giblin spelled out his case in his opening statement, explaining evidence he will present to the jury -- including the weapon used to kill Newman and a confession by House that he was involved in the killing.
The prosecutor said that after Newman was shot, two of the detectives' friends jumped in a car and followed the assailants, which led police to House, who was found hiding in a shed in O'Donnell Heights. Police found House there 10 minutes after the killing.
"Listen to the evidence," Giblin told the jury. "It will be easy to pick out the heroes and the villains."
House's lawyer countered that House is "a human being, not a villain."
Van Bavel also explained some personal aspects of House's life, including that he lived with his mother, is the father of an infant, and had a girlfriend who attends college.
Prosecutors say House killed the detective in a witness retaliation case.
It began in April 2001 after Newman went to a Cherry Hill gas station to fill up his car. Four men began taunting Newman, who was off duty, and indicated they had guns, according to police.
The men sped away from the gas station and Newman followed. Once in Westport, Newman stopped his car and called 911 for backup. While he was on the phone, one of the men from the gas station came up and fired at Newman's car, hitting him in the neck.
Soon after, several men, including 26-year-old Andre Travers, were arrested in the shooting. About a year later, Newman testified at Travers' trial.
In March 2002, Travers was convicted of trying to kill the detective and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Eight months after Travers was convicted, Newman was fatally shot as he walked out of Joe's Tavern in the 1000 block of Dundalk Ave.
Saunders, one of the defendants charged in the case, is Travers' half-brother.