A jury has found a Baltimore police officer not guilty of manslaughter in the 2008 shooting death of an unarmed man who ran from him to evade arrest.
Fifteen witnesses took the stand over the course of the four-day trial of Officer Tommy Sanders, who faced voluntary and involuntary manslaughter charges in the death of Edward Lamont Hunt, 27.
Sanders testified that Hunt assaulted him during a drug arrest at Hamilton Park Shopping Center two years ago, and that if Hunt hadn't reached for his pocket while running away, the five-year veteran wouldn't have shot him twice in the back.
The jury began deliberating Friday afternoon and returned the not-guilty verdict a little more than three hours later.
The jury initially voted 10-2 and then 11-1 before the unanimous decision was reached about 5:15 p.m., according to a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office.
Outside the downtown courthouse, Sanders appeared relieved but somber.
"We continue to pray for the Hunt family," he said on the sidewalk in front of the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse, adding that he didn't know whether he'd ever be the same again.
Asked whether he plans to return to the police force, he replied that he needed time "to clear" his head.
During closing arguments Friday, Assistant State's Attorney Lisa Goldberg made her last effort to rebut Sanders' contention that Hunt had assaulted him as he attempted an arrest. She also sought to discredit his assertion that deadly force was necessary when he thought Hunt was reaching into his coat pocket while he was chasing him.
The prosecution called eight witnesses who testified that they never saw Hunt reaching into his jacket as he fled and never saw Hunt assault the officer. Prosecutors also attempted to show that Sanders' actions during his interaction with Hunt — such as searching him with one hand as he talked on a police radio — were not those of an officer who thought he was in danger.
"We are disappointed that the jury didn't see the case the way we saw it, but we have to respect their decision" said Joe Sviatko, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office. "We thought we had a good case, a strong case, a very compelling case. Unfortunately, the jury didn't see it that way."
Sanders' attorney, Michael J. Belsky, presented two experts — including a retired lieutenant who wrote the Baltimore Police Department guidelines on the use of force — who testified that Sanders' response was in accordance with police training and reflected the way a reasonable officer should respond.
Belsky reminded jurors during closing arguments that the state could not produce an expert to testify otherwise.
Sanders took the stand in his own defense and testified that Hunt had raised several red flags during their interaction, namely "resisting, running and reaching."
Belsky said that officers "beating people with batons" or "getting drunk and stabbing someone 15 times" were behaviors that would warrant criminal prosecution. "This is not one of those cases," he said. "This case makes a mockery of those truly bad situations."
Members of Hunt's family said they were most disturbed that jurors apparently based their verdict on what Sanders said he thought he saw, as opposed to what witnesses testified they saw.
"I do not feel that justice was served in Baltimore today," said Hunt's mother, Sheryl Hunt. She and other family members had come from Lynchburg, Va., for Sanders' trial.
"He gets to walk his daughter down the aisle. I have a grandchild who will keep asking if his father is coming home every day," Hunt said. "He's walking free, but he's going to have to live with this for the rest of his life. And so will the jurors."
At the time of the shooting, Hunt was on probation for assaulting and eluding a police officer. He faced two years in prison if arrested again.
Belsky emphasized that the case was all about whether his client acted reasonably.
"This is a good man who did nothing wrong," Belsky said after the verdict. "The state's attorney's office should spend its time trying to foster good relations with the Police Department instead of prosecuting good police officers. That's how we'll solve the crime problem in Baltimore."