Trial begins over death of off-duty Baltimore officer

The Baltimore jury that will decide whether Sian James murdered Detective Brian Stevenson or acted in self-defense during a dispute over a parking place in Canton last October heard from the eyewitnesses Thursday as trial got under way in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

James’ companions that night — his roommate, the roommate’s girlfriend, and her friend — described a confrontation that quickly escalated from a disagreement over a spot in the popular nightlife district to profanity-laced threats to Stevenson lying bloodied and unconscious on the ground.

They all characterized Stevenson as the instigator and aggressor, but gave less-detailed accounts of what James, 26, did as Stevenson threatened James’ roommate, Robert Gibson.

On the other hand, Stevenson’s childhood friend, Kitrick Stewart, who was out celebrating with the 18-year veteran on the eve of his 38th birthday, denied that Stevenson said he was going to shoot Gibson before James hit Stevenson in the head with a fist-sized chunk of concrete, according to James’ attorney, John S. Denholm Jr.

In his opening statement, Denholm argued his client responded to credible death threats from an intoxicated, belligerent man who never identified himself as a police officer.

“There is no murder if there is self-defense,” the attorney with the big voice told the jury, which is composed of 10 women and five men. “There is no crime if there is self-defense.”

According to the testimony, Stevenson’s and Stewart’s evening intersected with James’ group’s planned night out when Gibson’s girlfriend, Nicole Sauer, staked out a vacant parking space in a small lot at the corner of Hudson and South Streeper streets for her friend, Molly Gilbert.

Stevenson drove into the lot just before Gilbert arrived and parked his black Cadillac Escalade truck halfway into the spot where Sauer was standing. As Stevenson and Stewart walked out of the lot, Sauer called back to James’ house and explained the situation to Gibson, who both walked around the corner to the lot. Gilbert and Gibson told Stevenson his truck would be towed, and a heated argument ensued.

Gibson, who has known James for five years and lived with him for a year and a half leading up to the Oct. 16 incident, described how Stevenson backed him up against another car on the lot and, smelling of liquor, told Gibson what would happen if anything happened to Stevenson’s truck.

“I’ll shoot you in your f— face,” Stevenson said, according to Gibson.

James had walked around the parking lot’s small retaining wall by this point, according to the testimony, and was standing just to Gibson’s right when the fatal blow rained down. Gibson, Sauer and Gilbert testified that James said nothing at any point during the incident. When Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Blomquist donned latex gloves and took the concrete chunk out of a brown paper bag Thursday, Gibson said he had never seen the alleged murder weapon before.

According to Gibson and Sauer, Stewart immediately went to Stevenson, asked him about a gun and then ran over to the truck and began searching beneath the seats, prompting everyone to flee.

“Ladies and gentlemen, there is no gun,” Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Blomquist told the jury during his opening statement. “I’m going to ask you to hold [James] accountable for his actions.”

Stevenson’s widow testified briefly about the family birthday she never got to share with her husband of nine years and instead how she spent that Sunday retrieving his service weapon from his closet and then speaking with police.

Gilbert testified she did not remember hearing final threats and testified James punched Stevenson with his fist. She left in her car while the others caught a cab to a nightclub in Power Plant Live! where police found them later that night. Blomquist also asked her about whether Sauer tried to influence her testimony in the case, but Judge Barry G. Williams did not allow her to speak about that.

According to testimony, James, Gibson, Sauer and Stewart had also been drinking preceding the incident.

James, dressed in a white, long-sleeved waffle shirt, tan pants and running shoes, took notes and conferred with Denholm throughout the day. Denholm would not say if his client would testify tomorrow, when the trial is expected to conclude. (Denholm, a former detective himself, also represents James in a pending rape case from August that Denholm dismissed as a dispute with James’ live-in girlfriend.)

The other witnesses Thursday were the assistant medical examiner who performed the autopsy and a woman who heard the argument from her home and called 911.

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