Officer William S. Kern should not have been carrying the live gun he used in the accidental shooting of a recruit, a fellow instructor said in court Wednesday, challenging Kern's assertion that he needed his service weapon for security.
On trial in the Feb. 12 shooting that critically wounded University of Maryland police trainee Raymond Gray, Kern claims he needed the weapon for protection during an exercise at the closed Rosewood Center in Owings Mills. Baltimore County prosecutors hope to chip away at that argument as they attempt to prove that the 18-year-veteran recklessly grabbed the wrong weapon and fired.
The exercise used "simunition" guns that shoot paintball-like projectiles. Fellow officer Efren Edwards testified Wednesday that he left his gun in the trunk of his cruiser that day because he knew live weapons were not allowed.
But during opening statements, Kern's attorney, Shaun F. Owens, said it was reasonable for Kern, who had served as an instructor for 13 years without prior incidents, to have the weapon as a safety precaution in an unsecured, unfamiliar location.
"There's absolutely no security there," Owens said of the Rosewood Center, a shuttered state facility for the developmentally disabled in Owings Mills. He said his client is not criminally responsible for the shooting.
"As a result, for the rest of his life he will be haunted by a very tragic mistake," he said.
Kern's bullet struck Gray in the head, blinding him in one eye. He remains at an out-of-state rehabilitation center.
In court testimony, fellow recruits described an atmosphere of fear and confusion when the shot rang out. Several said they had been watching through a window as other trainees conducted exercises. Suddenly the glass shattered and Gray fell to the floor with blood gushing from his forehead.
Owens said the recruits had been warned during training to avoid windows and doors because in real-life situations, those areas put officers at a greater risk.
"I heard a bang," said Baltimore Officer Jonathan Melina, who was standing nearby. He said he first thought the noise was from a rock hitting the window or a flash grenade.
"I remember feeling glass in my eyes," Melina added, pausing to hold back tears.
One officer attempted to aid Gray, placing a shirt over his gunshot wound.
Prosecutors claim that the incident never would have happened if Kern had been more careful and followed the guidelines on guns during training.
Edwards testified that he had done a safety walk-through to secure the facility before the training, and he did not know see Kern with a live firearm until after Gray was shot.
"I said, 'What the [expletive] are you doing with a gun?' " he said, describing Kern as visibly upset and in shock.
He said he asked for Kern's gun three times before he gave it up. Prosecutors have said Kern had an "unhealthy attachment" to the weapon, and also was reluctant to hand it over to the Baltimore County police officers who were called to the scene.
In addition, Assistant State's Attorney Katherine Vehar-Kenyon pointed to testimony in which recruits said Kern had previously pulled out his gun that day.
"He puts it right back on his hip," she said during her opening statements. She told jurors to consider what she said was a choice that caused Kern "to endanger human life."
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Several Baltimore officers who were recruits at the time testified that they previously saw Kern mistakenly pull his service weapon instead of his simunitions gun while showing recruits how to reload a weapon.
Several of the recruits said they noticed the gun was black instead of blue. The simunitions guns used during the training exercises were painted blue to distinguish them from live weapons.
One trainee testified Kern pulled his gun out and did not notice until another recruit pointed it out. "I'm sorry, it was muscle memory," Kern said, according to the trainee's testimony.
Kern is charged with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors.