A city jury acquitted on Wednesday a 21-year-old Baltimore man arrested last fall on gun charges by Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa.
De Sousa, who was named commissioner in January, took the stand during the trial of Malik Thompson. De Sousa testified Tuesday that he was on patrol with other officers in October when they pulled over a vehicle because it had a broken headlight. Thompson bolted from the passenger seat, De Sousa said. As other officers chased him, he said, he checked the glove box and found a loaded handgun.
Thompson's defense attorney told jurors the case was "some of the most sloppy police work I've ever seen," and criticized De Sousa specifically. Assistant Public Defender Ilene Frame chided the commissioner for failing to take a picture of the gun where he found it.
One juror said the panel "didn't feel like the state presented a strong enough case."
"Not enough evidence," he said as he left the courthouse. He declined to give his name.
For police and prosecutors, the case highlights continued challenges winning convictions for gun offenses. A 2016 Baltimore Sun analysis of gun cases showed charges for illegal guns in Baltimore often were dropped, or brought little jail time. Authorities have criticized judges and sought to improve investigations. Defense attorneys say the cases are often shoddy and lack evidence.
"The jury made a decision based on the totality of the evidence presented in the courtroom," police spokesman T.J. Smith said. "We respect the decision made by jurors."
Prosecutors did not immediately comment.
Douglas Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor who did not observe the case, said jurors might have been affected by the federal corruption trial of the police department's Gun Trace Task Force, which showed the rogue unit regularly fabricated pretexts for stopping people and then stole from them.
"That's something that will cause the public to really want to give a great deal of attention to how strong the evidence is before they're going to jump to a conclusion," Colbert said.
Thompson was arrested in October in the Forest Park neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore. De Sousa, a deputy police commissioner at the time, was riding with Sgt. Daraine Harris and Officer Kenneth Scott when they saw a vehicle coming towards them in the 3300 block of Chelsea Terrace that had a broken headlight. The officers made a U-turn and pulled the vehicle over.
De Sousa said the driver got out of the car. He said Thompson then emerged from the passenger side, reached toward his waistband, got back into the car for a moment, then re-emerged and fled on foot.
"Based on my experience, I believed he could have been in possession of a weapon," De Sousa testified.
Harris and Scott gave chase. Their body cameras were not activated. De Sousa said he stayed at the car, looked into the glove box and found a 9 mm handgun. He said he disabled the weapon and stuck it into his back pocket.
Frame asked De Sousa whether he had taken a cell phone picture of the gun as he found it. He said he might have, and if so, the image was probably still in his phone.
"I don't think he did [take a picture], because we don't have it," Frame told jurors. "He knows taking a photo of the gun when it's found is of utmost importance to the case."
No fingerprints or DNA were recovered from the weapon. Frame said the gun was more likely to have belonged to the driver because it was his car, and asked why police didn't charge both driver and passenger.
Of the officers' not activating their body cameras, Frame said: "Give me a break!"
Assistant State's Attorney Laura Ruppersberger asked the jury not to be distracted by "red herrings."
"Why'd he run? He knew he was dirty," Ruppersberger said. "The officers don't have to see every single thing to know what the defendant had done."
Prosecutors played recordings of phone calls Thompson made from jail in which he discussed the case with family and the driver of the car. In a conversation with the driver, Thompson could be heard urging the driver to take the charge. Ruppersberger said he also made an incriminating statement about carrying the weapon himself.
Frame said Thompson's comments reflected someone angry that he was in jail for a crime he didn't commit.
De Sousa, a 30-year veteran of the police department, said his testimony Tuesday was the first time he's taken the stand in as many as 10 years. He's been in leadership positions during that time, and was confirmed and sworn in as police commissioner in late February.
Thompson's mother, Lisa Thomas, asked why De Sousa wasn't sure if he'd taken a picture of the gun, and why he put the weapon in his back pocket after recovering it, instead of leaving it where it was or putting it in an evidence bag.
"That's unacceptable," she said.
An alternate juror who was dismissed just before deliberations and did not want to be identified said she was "appalled" by Frame's accusations against De Sousa.
"She called him a liar," the juror said. "I believed him."
Other police commissioners have been involved in arrests. Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III arrested brothers who fired guns into the air on New Year's Eve 2008. They took plea deals that spared them jail time. Commissioner Anthony W. Batts punched and held a gun to the head of an armed man in 2014. The man pleaded guilty to gun charges and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Thomas walked out of the courthouse with one of jurors. She said the juror told her, "You have a good boy. We can tell he's a good kid. Keep it up."