The way the attorney for the family suing Baltimore County describes it, heavily armed paramilitary police officers carrying ballistic shields and dressed in camouflage stormed a suburban Dundalk house over trace amounts of drugs without knocking and fatally shot a "devoted mother and wife" armed with a legally registered handgun to defend herself from intruders.
The way the attorney defending the police officers and the county describes it, professionally trained members of the SWAT team raided a suspected narcotics den containing marijuana and cocaine that was occupied by a convicted murderer with access to weapons and a teenager who had just shot another youth in a fight, resulting in the shooting of a woman holding a gun who refused to comply with the cop's commands.
Jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore will have to sort through these conflicting stories through at least two weeks of testimony in a civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by Charles Noel on behalf of his wife's estate in the Jan. 21, 2005, shooting of 44-year-old Cheryl Lynn Noel.
Lawyers for both sides gave opening statements this week in a case that not only raises questions about whether the shooting was justified but also could, if the family gets its way, become a referendum on whether police overuse dangerous, military-style raids to serve search-and-arrest warrants.
The attorneys promised jurors they would hear from Cheryl Lynn Noel's husband and other residents, from the police officers who planned the raid and the one who fired the fatal shot, from experts who will say the cops overreacted and from others who will testify the cops handled the raid to perfection.
It is a rare opportunity to listen to cops and others dissect a raid and a police shooting. More details on the case from the opening trial salvos are on my blog this morning.
To the family's lawyer, Dundalk in 2005 was an oasis outside the city; the county attorney described Dundalk as indistinguishable from the worst parts of Baltimore, part of a "very violent city and a very violent nation and a very violent world."
The investigation either started with a routine traffic stop of the woman's son in which an officer found a single Percocet pill or stemmed from a "growing prescription drug epidemic."
In one telling, Cheryl Lynn Noel was executed with a final "kill shot" at close range to the center of her chest as she lay prone on her bedroom floor, incapacitated from two other police bullets lodged in the upper left and right parts of her body, fired by Officer Carlos Artson the moment he entered her bedroom and confronted her holding the gun. Or she was shot the third and final time after she refused three orders from Artson to move away from the gun that had fallen from her hand and instead edged closer to the weapon.
Family attorney Terrell N. Roberts III: "This woman did not have fair warning that the police were entering her house" and thought her home was being invaded. After she was shot twice, he said, "She was not going for the gun. She was incapable of going for the gun."
Baltimore County attorney Paul M. Mayhew: "We do not apologize for one minute." He said Sgt. Robert M. Gibbons, who ordered the SWAT raid, "didn't think it was remotely safe to send a patrol officer knocking on the door," given the drug evidence seized and the occupants' violent criminal background.
Roberts reminded jurors that "we're not going after Osama bin Laden," and Mayhew reminded jurors that county cops are "not a terrorist organization."
Hyperbole aside, the case raises some interesting questions about police caught in a drug war and whether the violence requires them to sometimes act more like soldiers than peace officers.