The surviving suspect in the killing of Baltimore police Officer Brian D. Winder will no longer face a murder charge but, rather, far-lesser handgun violation charges that carry a maximum sentence of eight years, officials announced yesterday.
A grand jury indicted Jermaine Gaines yesterday afternoon on those handgun charges after an investigation turned up substantial evidence that he was not criminally responsible for the July 3 killing, prosecutors said.
Investigators have said that Charles Bennett, who was with Gaines, was solely to blame for the officer's death; Bennett killed himself this month as police closed in on him.
"It's an absolute tragedy," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for City State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, "but [Gaines] was not culpable for the murder charge."
Among findings that led investigators to conclude Gaines, 31, should not be charged in the homicide: eyewitness accounts from inside the store where Winder was shot; ballistic evidence that showed Gaines' gun had not been fired and that Bennett's gun had fired the fatal shots; and the fact that Gaines' identification card was in Winder's hand when the officer was shot, indicating he was cooperating with the officer who had been seeking him after a complaint.
"No evidence suggests that Jermaine Gaines assisted Charles Bennett in the commission of the murder or assisted Charles Bennett in his escape from the crime scene," Burns said in a written statement.
The grand jury indicted Gaines, who had previously been convicted on drug charges, on the felony charge of being a felon in possession of a handgun, as well as a related misdemeanor gun charge. If convicted, he could receive a five-year sentence for the felony and three years for the misdemeanor. He remained held without bail yesterday at Central Booking and is scheduled to be arraigned Oct. 20.
The gun charges stem from a late-night encounter with Winder inside G&G; Liquor Store in the 4600 block of Edmondson Ave.
Winder had responded to a 911 call from an Edmondson Village woman who wanted a man removed from her house.
The man -- who turned out to be Gaines -- had left by the time Winder arrived, so the officer set out to find him and came upon two men standing outside the liquor store. As Winder approached, Gaines and Bennett retreated inside the store, police have said.
Inside the store, Winder and the men had what Gaines later described as a courteous exchange. But at some point during the discussion, Bennett ambushed Winder, police said.
Winder was struck five times, including shots to the legs and chest, as he fled from the store. He collapsed in the parking lot.
Bennett fled. Gaines, who had stashed his Ruger 9 mm handgun behind a cardboard display in the liquor store, started to flee but was chased back inside when another officer arrived and fired a shot, police said.
Gaines told investigators that he was surprised when Bennett started shooting.
After the shooting, Gaines, of the 800 block of N. Mount St., was charged with first-degree murder. Three times in the past 12 years he has been convicted of drug charges, police said.
A manhunt for Bennett, 33, culminated with his suicide July 7 inside a Northwest Baltimore motel as police were poised to capture him.
Police spokesman Agent Donny Moses said, "We wish we could have Officer Winder back, but ... we don't want to charge someone with something he didn't do. We're going to charge [Gaines] with what we believe to be accurate and fair charges."