- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

Prince George's County, Md., police Officer Brian C. Catlett, testifying at his own trial yesterday, said he would be dead had he not shot a man who struggled with another officer for the policeman's gun.

Officer Catlett appeared choked up on the witness stand and dabbed his eyes with a tissue at one point, prompting some of the victim's family in the crowd to grumble and complain it was all an act.

Officer Catlett, 26, is charged with manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the shooting death of Gary Albert Hopkins Jr., 19, outside a dance at the West Lanham Hills fire station in November 1999.

Prosecutors say the other officer, Devin White, pointed his weapon at Mr. Hopkins' head in the parking lot, and the teen-ager tried to push it away. After a minor struggle, prosecutors say, Mr. Hopkins raised his arms and Officer Catlett shot him.

The defense attorneys contend Officer Catlett had to used deadly force because Mr. Hopkins lunged at Officer White and grabbed the barrel of his gun. They say Mr. Hopkins put up his hands only after he was shot.

"In my opinion, Officer White was losing the struggle because he was backpedaling," Officer Catlett testified. "I knew if [Mr. Hopkins] got the weapon from Officer White, that Officer White and I were dead."

The case has drawn further national attention to the Prince George's County police force, which has been scrutinized for several police shootings over the past two years.

Charges of racial discrimination have abounded in the shootings, including the Catlett case. Officer Catlett is white. Mr. Hopkins was black.

A civilian panel presented county leaders on Tuesday with 57 recommendations for improving the department. A group called the People's Coalition for Police Accountability in Prince George's County held a rally outside the courthouse during yesterday's lunch recess.

According to Officer Catlett, on the night of the dance, fights broke out all over the parking lot after the dance ended. At one point, a man warned him there was a gun in a cream-colored Oldsmobile.

Soon, Officer White drove up and stopped the car. He drew his weapon and pointed it at the driver. Officer Catlett ran toward the car with his weapon drawn because a passenger got out with his hands in his pockets.

Officer Catlett watched the man head into a crowd and the officer approached the passenger side of the car to assist.

"I clearly see an arm come out and swat … Officer White's weapon," Officer Catlett said.

Then he saw Mr. Hopkins climb out of the driver's window of the two-door vehicle and lunge at Officer White. Mr. Hopkins and Officer White begin fighting for the gun, both of their hands locked around it, he said.

"I couldn't believe it was happening," Officer Catlett said. "I fired one round."

Afterward, Officer Catlett "couldn't stop shaking."

Assistant State's Attorney Roland Patterson probed Officer Catlett about a previous run-in with Mr. Hopkins during an August 1998 traffic stop. Though Mr. Hopkins was not arrested, he had complained about police brutality against a friend.

Yesterday, Officer Catlett said he did not remember Mr. Hopkins from that incident.

Later in the day, FBI Agent Melissa Smrz of the DNA analysis unit said she identified Mr. Hopkins' DNA under the sight on the front of Officer White's weapon.

Police presented this evidence to State's Attorney Jack Johnson last year after a grand jury indicted Officer Catlett, but the county's top prosecutor rejected it.

The weapon had been returned to the officer, cleaned, fired and cleaned again before being sent to the FBI lab, Mr. Johnson said.

Officer Catlett is the first county officer to be tried for a killing while in uniform. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 15 years in prison. The case could end today.

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