Court of Appeals Reinstates Verdict in Police Brutality Case

Earlier this week, the Maryland Court of Appeals reinstated a $500,000 jury verdict against a Baltimore City police officer resulting from his shooting of a Baltimore-area man during a traffic stop.

The officer pulled Jeffrey Blair over after he witnessed Mr. Blair drive on the wrong side of the road and make an illegal turn. The officer shot Mr. Blair four times after Mr. Blair exited his car and took a few quick steps toward the officer. Mr. Blair had to be treated at shock trauma for gunshot wounds to his abdomen, scalp, and right hand, as well as for psychiatric issues. This incident was captured on video from a street-level security camera and the video was introduced as evidence at trial. In addition to this video evidence, other evidence presented at trial included testimony from experts on police tactics, which endeavored to assess whether an “objectively reasonable police officer” would have used a deadly force in this circumstance.

The Court of Special Appeals initially reversed the jury’s verdict against the officer based on its own independent review and interpretation of the video evidence of the incident. The Court of Special Appeals had explained “it is a bedrock principle of law that appellate judges will not, in the absence of an abuse of discretion, overturn factfinding below. Yet the advent and prevalence of video cameras has created a crack in this bedrock.”

In reinstating the jury’s verdict, the Court of Appeals subsequently determined that the Court of Special Appeals had erred when it substituted its judgment for the factual finding of the jury based on its own independent evaluation of the video evidence. Since the evidence at trial permitted several different inferences and interpretations on the question of excessive force, it was for the jury to weigh and evaluate the level of risk generated by the interaction, as well as the options relative to the levels of force available to the officer in response to the interaction.

Mr. Blair’s “relatively large stature and quick approach” alone does not necessarily show that Mr. Blair’s actions threatened the officer or the greater public with serious physical harm, thereby justifying the use of deadly force. The Court explained that it was not the place of the intermediate appellate court to reverse a jury’s verdict based on its own review of the evidence, and doing so would invade the province of the jury which “must remain sacrosanct.” Factual matters are for juries, not appellate courts, to determine.

This opinion by the Court of Appeals, reinstating the $500,000 verdict against the officer is timely and encouraging as society is in the midst of reckoning with the large number of excessive force cases in recent years, particularly against people of color. Of note, the recognition by the Court that “large stature” and a “quick approach” toward an officer, are insufficient on their own for an officer to use deadly force, may prove to be critical in reigning in police brutality.

Nathans & Biddle attorneys have successfully represented innocent clients during the past 25-years. In some of those cases, we have received substantial compensation based on our client’s unjust imprisonment.

Late last year, Booth Ripke persuaded the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office that one of our new clients, Andrew Stewart, was wrongly convicted 36-years ago. Mr. Stewart was subsequently exonerated and released. We are now in the process of filing a lawsuit based on that monumental injustice.

In 2001, Larry Nathans and Booth Ripke persuaded another Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge to reopen the prior denials of Michael Austin’s post-conviction petition. That judge ruled in our favor, after we presented compelling evidence of Mr. Austin’s innocence in 17 pleadings and a multi-day hearing. The judge subsequently exonerated and ordered Mr. Austin released.

Nathans & Biddle then subsequently successfully petitioned then Governor Ehrlich to pardon Mr. Austin, who had spent 26-years in prison, also for a crime he did not commit. In 2004, he received the then-largest actual innocence compensation awarded in Maryland history. Mr. Austin’s story was covered on Good Morning America and many other national and local media. Mr. Stewart’s tragic case, and those of his two co-defendants, will be aired this month on 60 Minutes. In Mr. Austin’s case, we worked on the matter with Centurion Ministries (the nation’s first innocence project). In Mr. Stewart’s case, we partnered with the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, who represented one of Mr. Stewart’s co-defendants.

Nathans & Biddle LLP is a highly respected advocate for individuals and businesses involved in a broad spectrum of criminal and civil disputes, forfeitures, and attorney grievance matters. With offices in Baltimore, Annapolis, and Greenbelt, we represent clients across Maryland (both federal and state courts), the Washington D.C. area, and several other federal courts across the country.

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