- The Washington Times - Friday, February 23, 2001

A Prince George's County, Md., judge yesterday cleared a white police officer charged in the shooting death of an unarmed black man who struggled with another officer for that policeman's gun.
Circuit Judge E. Allen Shepherd ruled as "reasonable" the deadly force used by Officer Brian C. Catlett, 26, against Gary Albert Hopkins Jr., 19, outside a dance at the West Lanham Hills fire station in November 1999.
After deliberating for an hour, the judge ruled the testimony of defense witnesses namely, three volunteer firefighters who saw the shooting to be more reliable than that of state witnesses primarily partygoers.
Officer Catlett, the first Prince George's officer to be tried for killing someone while in uniform, could have been imprisoned for 15 years if convicted of voluntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment.
The case divided the county, particularly the police department and state's attorney's office, and again focused national attention on the Prince George's police force.
The department and its officers have been under intense scrutiny in the aftermath of several police shootings of suspects over the past two years. Critics have accused the department of racism.
Officer Catlett's defense attorney argued had no choice but to shoot a man who could have taken the gun from Officer Devin White and used it against both policemen. Prosecutors contend Mr. Hopkins, after a brief struggle, held his hands up and then was shot.
Officer Catlett, a three-year veteran, showed little emotion when he heard the verdict. He was escorted out of the courtroom through a rear door. His attorney later said the officer had been confident he would be found not guilty.
Reaction to the verdict among members of Mr. Hopkins' family was subdued, with some sobbing quietly or lowering their heads.
"This may not be a victory today, but [the police] know eyes are on them," said Marion Hopkins, who wore a button emblazoned with her son's face throughout the trial. Getting a police officer into court on such charges is a first step, she said.
The verdict did not come as a surprise to Mrs. Hopkins. She criticized Judge Shepherd whom she said was part of the "good ol' boy network" for making up his mind before the trial ended.
A jury would have found Officer Catlett guilty, Mrs. Hopkins said.
John Bartlett Jr. of the Fraternal Order of Police said his officers, many of whom packed the courtroom for several days, were "very, very excited."
"We're standing behind [Officer Catlett]," he said, noting that he hopes the officer remains a policeman either in Prince George's County or elsewhere.
Mr. Bartlett condemned State's Attorney Jack Johnson for letting the trial go forward. The prosecutor "succumbed to the political pressure," the police union official said.
Mrs. Hopkins should never have been put through the pain of reliving the shooting during six days of trial, Mr. Bartlett said.
Said defense attorney Bob Bonsib: "It is hard to understand why a fine young officer like Officer Catlett was put through this."
Mr. Johnson "had an agenda that had nothing to do with seeing justice was done," Mr. Bonsib said.
"Mr. Johnson should be ashamed of himself. He owes Officer Catlett an apology."
Neither Mr. Johnson nor the prosecution team was available after the verdict.
During emotional closing arguments earlier in the day, Assistant State's Attorney Roland Patterson and Mr. Bonsib attacked the credibility of each other's witnesses.
Mr. Patterson stressed that three neutral state witnesses said the same thing, that Mr. Hopkins let go of the gun and raised his hands before being shot.
"Gross negligence exists and as a result, we're justified in asking for a conviction," Mr. Patterson said. Later he added, "This is no attack on the police. This is a single prosecution against one man who we felt violated the law."
The prosecutor suggested a police cover-up. Mr. Patterson questioned why it took Officer White four hours to give his statement and why his gun was not sent to a DNA lab for analysis until months after the shooting.
Mr. Hopkins' DNA was found on the front of the weapon, indicating a struggle. Judge Shepherd, in giving his verdict, said that evidence disproves testimony from several state witnesses who saw no struggle. Mr. Johnson refused to show the DNA evidence to a grand jury.
Mr. Bonsib said he is often accused of attacking police during his cases.
Now the prosecution is doing that, he said.
The defense attorney, questioning the reliability of state witnesses, at one point turned to the prosecution table and said, "Who is right?"
As for his own witnesses, Mr. Bonsib said, "I think it is the height of absurdity to suggest they would tell anything other than the truth."

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