A Baltimore grand jury indicted a city police officer yesterday on charges of voluntary and involuntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man he was questioning in Northeast Baltimore in January, according to the state's attorney's office.
It is only the second time since 1996 that a Baltimore officer has been indicted in an on-duty police-involved shooting. The January shooting was one of 16 by city officers this year that have resulted in a dozen fatalities, one short of the number killed in all of last year.
Officer Tommy Sanders III, 37, is expected to surrender to authorities, city prosecutors said in a statement released after the indictment was returned. He is a six-year veteran of the force.
Paul Blair, the head of the city's Fraternal Order of Police, described Sanders as "very upset" and added: "He's got a family. ... He lives in the city, the type of police we want working in this department. Hopefully, he will have a fair day in court, and all of the facts will come out."
Sanders is charged with shooting Edward Lamont Hunt, a 27-year-old man he had deemed suspicious and had stopped about noon in the Hamilton Park Shopping Center on Northern Parkway. Sanders and Hunt struggled,and Hunt pulled away, police said.
Police said at the time that Sanders, fearing for his life, shot Hunt. Witnesses told The Sun that the officer searched Hunt before letting him go and shot him in the back a few moments later. Police have said that no weapon was found, but that drugs were discovered near the location.
Eddie Moore, 32, told The Sun that he was with his young daughter and watched the officer search Hunt twice and make him put his hands on his head before Hunt pulled away. Moore said the officer went after Hunt, firing at his back.
"They were standing there for a few minutes," Moore said. "Then the officer frisked Hunt again, patting down both of his legs. When the officer pulled out a pair of handcuffs, Hunt pulled away, and the officer ran after him firing."
The shooting elicited anger from the city branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which called for an independent investigation. The FBI is conducting a civil rights investigation. Hunt was black, as is Sanders.
When told of the indictment yesterday, Hunt's girlfriend, Lakia Jeter, said: "I'm glad. I just hope it sticks. I hope that they found him guilty." Jeter said that she'd never seen Hunt with a weapon. She said Hunt had worked in Owings Mills and had moved from Virginia to live with her and their young son.
"That's what makes me feel bad, he came here to start a family for me," Jeter said. "This man was killed for nothing, as far as I can tell. Police cannot just go around killing people because they have a weapon and a badge."
But Michael J. Belsky, the officer's attorney, said Sanders has not been accused of any malice. "It is a very explainable and defensible situation," he said. "We intend to present evidence in court to explain that his was a fully explainable correct decision on the part of the officer." Sanders did not testify before the grand jury, said Michael Davey, another attorney representing him.
Sterling Clifford, a city police spokesman, said Sanders has been on administrative duty since the Jan. 30 shooting. The homicide unit investigates all police-involved shootings and turns its investigation over the prosecutor's office to review. State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy examines each case to determine whether she believes laws have been broken.
The last city officer to be indicted and convicted of a police-involved shooting while on duty was Sgt. Stephen R. Pagotto, who shot Preston E. Barnes in 1996 and was convicted of manslaughter in 1997. The conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeals, which concluded that the departmental guidelines he violated did not rise to the level of a criminal act.
Most shootings by city police are ruled justified. Jessamy has refused to take some to a grand jury, including one in 1997 in which an officer shot a man armed with a knife outside Lexington Market. The shooting was captured on videotape and sparked an outcry over the use of force. The city paid relatives of the man a half-million-dollar settlement, but the officer was never criminally charged.
"We can count on one hand the number of police officers who've been indicted for police-involved shootings," said Tim Dixon, a trial attorney who used to be a city police lieutenant. "Mrs. Jessamy doesn't take a lot of them there. There must be something particular about this that she wants the community to weigh in on."
Yesterday's indictment means that the grand jury believes there is probable cause that the officer committed a crime, but a trial will be needed to determine guilt or innocence. An arraignment is set for Aug. 29. The two counts, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, represent the lowest charges for a homicide under Maryland law.
To convict on a charge of voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors must prove the officer honestly believed he needed to take a life, but any other reasonable person in the same situation would not have felt that way. To prove involuntary manslaughter, prosecutors must show that the officer acted in a "grossly negligent" manner.
"Neither is more culpable than the other," said Byron L. Warnken, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "One is voluntary. Both are felonies with a 10-year sentence."