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Lawsuit over cop-on-cop killing goes to jury

Did Baltimore police officer Norman Stamp threaten a fellow member of the force with brass knuckles and then his service weapon, as the city Police Department concluded, or was he shot dead because he was in biker garb at the scene of an East Baltimore strip club brawl?

After two weeks of trial, a jury of three men and three women must now decide whether Officer John Torres acted reasonably when he fired his gun at Stamp, a well-liked 44-year veteran cop and cofounder of the “Chosen Sons” motorcycle club founder, in the early morning hours of April 24, 2008.

“If the decision to shoot was reasonable, that’s it,” Troy Priest, who is representing Torres, told the civil jury Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore City Circuit Court. “That’s the ball game.”

Plaintiff’s attorney Peter McDowell, however, said jurors should award Stamp’s widow and estate millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages to send a message to the Baltimore Police Department, which cleared Torres of any wrongdoing in the incident.

“They’re misleading you, folks,” McDowell said, alleging a police cover-up. “Don’t let them get away with it.”

At the back steps

Everyone agrees Torres, who joined the force eight years ago, was among the officers responding to a call from a Fells Point bar owner whose relative was involved in the scuffle at the Haven Place.

But what happened after the trio of cops arrived at the club, especially at the back steps where Torres encountered Stamp, was hotly debated.

Torres, 29, testified that he pushed Stamp apart from a large man and that Stamp then fell down the stairs onto the side parking lot, where he brandished a set of brass knuckles. Torres said he tasered Stamp, but Stamp recovered and aimed his gun at Torres, so the younger officer closed his eyes and shot twice.

Only at that point, as he was dying, did Stamp, 65, identify himself as a cop, Torres said.

McDowell argued Torres’ account conflicted with the other two responding officers’ versions of events and didn’t square with an expert analysis of the trajectory of the bullets through Stamp’s body.

“It’s not even a close call,” McDowell said.

He argued Stamp was simply on his way home when Torres, caught up in the hubbub and seeing Stamp’s Chosen Sons leather vest, fatally misjudged his off-duty colleague’s intentions.

McDowell denied Stamp had any connection to the brass knuckles, which were found under his bleeding body.

“I don’t know where the brass knuckles came from but I know they didn’t come from Norman Stamp,” he said.

Priest, though, pointed to abrasions on Stamp’s fingers in an autopsy photo as proof that he wore the illegal device. Stamp might have developed a reputation as a peacemaker over the course of his life and career, Priest said, but he wasn’t one that night with his biker buddies in a fight.

“When he came up those steps with those brass knuckles, he was committing a crime,” Priest said.

McDowell said the blood on the steps was consistent with his theory that Stamp collapsed and rolled down to the surface of the parking lot after being shot. Priest said railings on the steps would have made that impossible and that most of the blood was on the parking lot.

Both attorneys alluded to the jury’s court-sanctioned visit to the Haven Place, a rare allowance meant to help the fact-finders understand the scene of the shooting.

The jury also heard from Stamp’s co-founder of the Chosen Sons, 78-year-old attorney Robert Donadio, as well as defense expert Charles Key, who McDowell said made $182,000 last year from such engagements.

Just before the jury left to deliberate, McDowell held up poster-sized photos of Stamp, smoking a cigar with his wife in one image and on a police boat with Gov. Martin O’Malley in another. The widow, Suzanne Stamp, watched from the court gallery along with several police officers, three of them in uniform.

“This case cries out for justice,” McDowell said.

No verdict had been reached as of press time. The jury is scheduled to resume deliberations Thursday morning.