Baltimore officer charged in fiancee's killing pleads not guilty

Lawyers for a veteran Baltimore police officer charged with killing his fiancee and then engaging in an hours-long standoff with fellow officers said Thursday that they want to explore whether he suffered from combat-related stress.

The comments came after a brief hearing in which Officer James W. Smith, 49, pleaded not guilty, surrounded by a larger-than-normal complement of security staff in the courtroom of Judge Steven Sfekas.

Smith was visibly upset, with defense attorney Linda Ramirez comforting him as the charges of first-degree murder and a handgun violation were read aloud. He mouthed "I love you" to a relative in the courtroom as he was led out.

Police said Smith, an officer for 20 years, got into an argument with his fiancee, Kendra Diggs, and shot her from an upstairs window in West Baltimore as she stood on the sidewalk with officers who had responded to the home. Smith then holed up in the house with his 4-year-old son and refused to emerge for hours before surrendering peacefully, police said.

His other defense attorney, Janice Bledsoe, said after the hearing that Smith was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1991 and served in Iraq. She said the mental effects of that experience and his time as a city officer were "two avenues we will continue to explore."

"I don't think everybody sees the side of the stress being in the city and being a veteran of war," Bledsoe said. "It's a very tragic case, and we just know having talked to him and spent time with him that there are other parts to him besides the part being portrayed right now in court."

Bledsoe also shed more light on what Smith told investigators after the shooting.

"He told police that there may have been a situation that could be related to some type of infidelity," Bledsoe said. But she added that defense attorneys had received evidence including his statement to police for the first time Thursday.

Smith is being held without bond, and Bledsoe said he is isolated in protective custody. A preliminary trial date was set for August.

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