A jury found Baltimore police instructor William S. Kern guilty Thursday of reckless endangerment for shooting and critically wounding a recruit during a training exercise at the Rosewood Center in Owings Mills.
Jurors found the veteran officer not guilty of the more serious charge of second-degree assault but concluded that Kern had been criminally reckless when he grabbed his loaded service gun and fired at a man he was training. He could receive a prison sentence of up to five years.
Kern, 46, testified in his own defense Thursday before jurors began their brief deliberations. He said he never meant to hurt Raymond Gray when he pointed his gun at the University of Maryland police recruit Feb. 12 and pulled the trigger.
The instructor said he thought he was holding a "simunitions" training pistol that fires paintball-like cartridges and intended to use it to remind trainees how dangerous it can be in real-life situations to congregate near doors, windows and hallways.
"I realized it was not my simunitions weapon immediately," Kern said, fighting back tears. He said he was carrying his service weapon for the security of the trainees and himself. "The sound that it makes — it's a very distinctive sound."
But Baltimore County prosecutors argued that Kern broke city police guidelines by bringing his gun into simunitions training. They said in court this week that he had an "unhealthy attachment" to his gun, had pulled it out by accident before the shooting and was reluctant to give it up afterward.
"He needs to be held responsible for his actions of that day," Deputy State's Attorney John Cox said in closing arguments.
In his testimony, Kern said Baltimore City instructors routinely carry live weapons during training.
Kern said he had been holding his training gun in his right pocket, inches away from the holster that was carrying his service weapon. After the live round went off, Kern said, he immediately ran toward the recruits, forced open a door and found Gray with a wound to his head.
He called out to two recruits with medical training and then ran upstairs to find another instructor before going outside to get reception on his cellphone so he could call 911. His defense attorney played a tape of the ensuing 911 call for jurors Thursday.
Throughout the more than four-minute call, Kern can be heard in frantic and concerned tones asking for help. At one point, he drove an unmarked car to the front of the Rosewood Center so he could direct ambulances to the shooting scene as quickly as possible.
The state-owned facility formerly housed patients with developmental disabilities.
"I got an officer shot in the head. I got an officer shot in the head," Kern says on the 911 recording. "Yes, somebody was accidentally shot in the head during a training exercise. I need a medic here now!"
Gray, of Baltimore, lost sight in one eye and was hospitalized for months before moving to an out-of-state rehabilitation center. He did not appear in court. Members of his family sat through the trial but declined to comment after the verdict.
Dwight A. Petit, who represents the family in a civil suit against the city and county, said he was disappointed that Kern was not convicted of the more serious charge. Second-degree assault carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.
"There is no doubt he was reckless," he said. "The problem with assault is people are looking for intent" rather than the disregard for the safety of others. The charge does not require evidence of intent, he said.
Much of the testimony in the trial revolved around the rules surrounding guns in city police training. Kern said that he and a fellow training officer had agreed that one of them would carry a live weapon at all times during the training because the Rosewood facility was not secure.
"I was armed because I did not feel safe," Kern said. He said police had to keep a door open to prevent themselves from being locked in, and he pointed out that there is a drug rehabilitation center nearby.
But Officer Efren Edwards, a fellow instructor, denied such an agreement. He testified that departmental guidelines prohibit live weapons at such exercises.
Baltimore police say commanders were not aware of the exercises and that the city did not have permission to use Rosewood for training.
Kern, through his attorney Shaun F. Owens, declined to comment after the verdict.
Owens said throughout the trial that his client should not be held criminally responsible for the shooting.
"There was no question whatsoever that this was purely an accident," he said.
Kern is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 17.