Baltimore police officers won't be able to wear their uniforms as they listen to testimony in the coming weeks in the case of a man allegedly connected to the shooting death last July of Officer Brian D. Winder.
Circuit Judge Allen L. Schwait agreed with defense attorneys this week that jurors' seeing bench after bench of uniformed officers in the courtroom could lead to an unfair trial for Jermaine Gaines, 32. The trial is expected to start this month.
Longtime police officers, angry that they can't sit together in uniform as a show of solidarity for their fallen comrade, said they could not recall a Baltimore judge ever making a similar ruling.
To protest, officers plan to march this morning to the courthouse and hold a brief prayer vigil with Winder's widow, Lorrie. The 36-year-old officer, who was raised in Edmondson Village, also had two sons and a stepdaughter.
"We're offended by Judge Schwait's bogus ruling," said Lt. Frederick V. Roussey, president of the city Fraternal Order of Police and an officer for 32 years. "I've never even heard of a judge entertaining anything like this."
Gaines is charged with being a felon in possession of a handgun and a misdemeanor weapons violation for his alleged role in the events that preceded the fatal shooting.
Charles Bennett, the man who police believe shot Winder five times at an Edmondson Village liquor store, committed suicide days later as police closed in on him. Investigators determined that Gaines didn't fire any shots at Winder; he faces a maximum sentence of eight years in prison if convicted of both gun charges.
"I'm trying to keep the courtroom neutral," Gaines' public defender, Bridget Duffy Shepherd, said yesterday during the second day of pretrial motions. "It's emotional enough as it is."
Assistant State's Attorney Andrea Mason, who is prosecuting the case, opposed Shepherd's motion. Schwait could not be reached for comment.
It's typical to see throngs of uniformed police officers circulating the courthouse hallways and sitting in courtrooms during the trials and sentencing hearings of people accused of killing their fellow officers. Dozens of officers were present for the numerous court proceedings over the past year for three men convicted of fatally shooting Detective Thomas G. Newman.
The public defender's motion on trial spectators also requested that the judge prohibit Winder's relatives from wearing T-shirts bearing a large photograph of him and his date of death. The family agreed not to wear such clothing.
Roussey said the judge is "bending over backward" to be fair to Gaines and, in the process, is "dehumanizing Officer Winder."
"It's a horrible thing this judge is doing," said Roussey, whose son, a police officer, was killed while on duty in a car accident in 2000. "We're a police family, and we want to be able to sit with Officer Winder's widow and support her during the trial. Now we can't. It's an injustice to every police officer on the street."
Winder was responding to a domestic dispute call from a West Baltimore woman the night he was killed. The woman told him an armed man - who turned out to be Gaines - had fled her house.
The officer found two men standing outside G&G; Village Liquors in the 4600 block of Edmondson Ave. Although Gaines apparently complied with his instructions, Bennett ambushed him, police said.
Gaines was arrested that night, but Bennett fled. Three days later, he killed himself in a motel room as police were about to arrest him.
Shepherd said she believes that because the killer committed suicide, "some people close to Officer Winder need someone to vent on, and my client is the one they've chosen to vent on."
Roussey said many officers feel that Gaines "is just as guilty as the guy who pulled the trigger."
The emotions swirling around the case, some lawyers said, are why the request that uniformed officers not fill the courtroom is merited.
Assistant State's Attorney Antonio Gioia, chief of the prosecutors' research and training division, said judges must ensure that courtroom observers don't purposefully or unintentionally sway jurors.
"The environment in the courtroom can't rise to the level where it communicates to the jury that a defendant is guilty or dangerous," he said. "Police, like the public, have a right to attend a trial. But judges have broad latitude to control the environment."
Schwait's ruling does not prohibit officers wearing street clothing from sitting in the courtroom, and officers who are testifying in the case are allowed to wear their uniforms when they take the stand.
Roussey said many officers won't be able to come to the trial now because they often come during breaks while on duty, or just as their shifts end.
Gioia said he sympathizes with the "sense of loss the officers have," but that Schwait's ruling is perhaps in the best interest of justice.
"We have to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial," he said. "If he doesn't, we could end up back at the beginning, doing the whole thing over again. And no one wants that."