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Md. man convicted of killing Delaware police officer

Del. police officer Chad Spicer who was shot and killed in the line of duty

GEORGETOWN, Del. — A jury on Tuesday convicted a Maryland man of murder in the fatal shooting of a Georgetown police officer, a crime that convulsed a small southern Delaware community.

Derrick Powell, 23, of Cumberland, Md., was found guilty of felony murder in the September 2009 shooting of patrolman Chad Spicer, 29. Powell could face the death penalty. The Sussex County jury that delivered the verdict is to return Thursday morning for the penalty phase of the trial.

“We just feel that justice was served today for Chad and his beloved daughter, Aubrey,” Spicer’s mother, Ruth Ann Spicer, said as she left the courtroom.

Mrs. Spicer declined comment when asked about the prospect of Powell being sentenced to death.

Powell was charged with two counts of murder. He was found guilty of recklessly causing Spicer’s death while engaged in the separate felony of fleeing an attempted robbery, but he was acquitted of recklessly causing the death of a police officer in the performance of his duties. He also was acquitted of an assault charge involving a grazing neck wound that Spicer’s partner, Shawn Brittingham, suffered from a fragment of the bullet that struck Spicer.

The case pitted testimony from prosecution witnesses against scientific evidence that defense attorneys argued had pointed to another man as Spicer’s killer.

A collective gasp filled the courtroom when the jury forewoman initially announced that the panel, which deliberated for more than eight hours over two days, had acquitted Powell of killing a police officer in the line of duty, as well as an underlying firearms charge. Prosecutors Paula Ryan and Martin Cosgrove rested their foreheads in their hands as those verdicts were announced.

The courtroom atmosphere swiftly reversed when the jury returned a guilty verdict on the felony murder charge. The panel also convicted Powell of attempted robbery, resisting arrest and reckless endangering, as well as several counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.

Powell had no audible response to the verdict.

Police chief William Topping said outside the courthouse that the jury had delivered “some measure of justice” for the Spicer family.

In closing arguments Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys offered competing accounts of events surrounding Spicer’s killing, beginning with the attempted robbery of a drug dealer outside a fast food restaurant and ending with a single shot to the face of the young officer as he sat in the front passenger seat of a police cruiser.

Prosecutors argued that Powell shot Spicer from the back seat of a car that Spicer and Brittingham began pursuing in response to gunfire outside the restaurant.

Cosgrove said witnesses identified Powell as the man who shot at the drug dealer in the parking lot of a McDonald’s restaurant, and that Powell matched the description of a man with a handgun who jumped out of the suspects’ car after it abruptly stopped and was rammed by the police cruiser.

Cosgrove also said the driver of the suspects’ car, Christopher Reeves, told investigators that Powell had warned him during the police chase that if he stopped the car, he would shoot at the officers. Reeves, who has a long criminal record, was allowed to plead guilty to minor charges in exchange for testifying against Powell.

Defense attorneys argued that another man in the back seat of the suspects’ car, Luis Flores, shot and killed Spicer after a botched robbery that had been arranged by Reeves and Flores, an admitted drug dealer who also testified against Powell.

They noted that Flores and Powell had equal numbers of gunshot residue particles on their hands, even though, according to prosecutors, Flores last fired the gun a week before the killing.

Prosecutors suggested that Flores, who tried to help the dying Spicer and was not charged with any crime related to his death, may have gotten gunshot residue on his hands by touching Spicer or the police car.

But public defender Stephanie Tsantes noted that no gunshot residue was found on Powell’s shirt, even though he allegedly held the gun sideways cross his chest as he fired at Spicer. She also pointed out that investigators never tested the shirt Flores was wearing for gunshot residue, even though evidence showed Flores as the major contributor of DNA on the trigger of the gun.