Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Baltimore man accused of murdering off-duty officer testifies to self-defense

After testifying Friday that he threw a fist-sized concrete chunk at Detective Brian Stevenson because the off-duty Baltimore policeman was threatening his and his friend’s lives, Sian James must wait until at least Monday to learn if a Baltimore jury believes his self-defense theory or thinks he’s a murderer.

During his half-hour on the stand, James, a 26-year-old Jamaican immigrant, told how Stevenson walked up to his roommate and threatened to shoot him in the face, then turned to James and said the same thing to him. James said Stevenson was “fiddling with his waist” before James threw the rock, which broke Stevenson’s skull.

“I thought I was going to die,” James said, who spoke with an island accent and choked up as he described the climax of a dispute that began over a parking spot in Canton last fall.

In his closing argument, Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Blomquist referred to James’ “alligator tears” and called him a “coward” who “sucker-punched” Stevenson, an 18-year veteran, and should be held accountable. The prosecutor said James and his roommate, Robert Gibson, fashioned their version of events to support James’ self-defense argument only after they learned Stevenson was a police officer and was likely to have been carrying a gun on that October evening.

“You don’t have to be a genius to come up with that one,” he told the jury.

John S. Denholm Jr., James’ attorney, said the incident was a justifiable homicide. He emphasized that Stevenson, whose 38th birthday was the next day, had been drinking before driving his Cadillac Escalade to Southeast Baltimore that night and never identified himself as a police officer throughout the confrontation.

“That was the man who was supposed to take the oath to serve and protect,” Denholm said.

James is charged with first- and second-degree murder, voluntary and involuntary manslaughter and carrying a deadly weapon. If the jury completely accepts his self-defense argument, with respect to himself or his roommate, Robert Gibson, he must be found not guilty, according to Baltimore City Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams’ instructions. If the jury finds it’s a partial defense — that is, James’ estimation of the danger was unreasonable or he used more than necessary force — manslaughter is the appropriate verdict, Williams said.

The mostly black, mostly female jury got the case about 5 p.m. Friday, the day after the trial started. They deliberated for less than an hour before going home for the weekend. The 12-member panel will resume deliberations Monday morning.

On Thursday, they heard from Gibson, his girlfriend and her friend, who were all in the narrow office parking lot as the episode unfolded, as well as from Kitrick Stewart, Stevenson’s childhood friend who was out celebrating with him. Stevenson’s widow, the doctor who performed the autopsy, officers involved in the investigation and bystanders who heard the scuffle also testified over the two days.

But heading into Friday, the biggest remaining question was whether James, who has been portrayed as a man of few words, would tell his side of the story.

Wearing dress clothes as opposed to the athletic gear he wore Thursday, James calmly answered questions and offered explanations in a bid to walk free rather than spend years of his adult life in prison.

Responding to Denholm’s questions, James, who came to the United States in 2005 and works as a manager at Jiffy Lube, said he and Gibson had just had a “small shot” of a mixed drink when Gibson’s girlfriend, Nicole Sauer called. Sauer, who had gone out to help her friend, Molly Gilbert, find a parking spot, phoned the house and said somebody else was backing into the space she had reserved.

When he and Gibson arrived, James said, Stevenson’s truck was more out of the spot than in, but Stevenson and Stewart were unconcerned about the possible consequences and were cursing at the women as they left the lot. Gibson told the men their truck would be towed, and Stevenson and Stewart walked up to Gibson. Stevenson threatened Gibson, James testified, matching Gibson’s testimony from Thursday. James said Stevenson also threatened him, which was beyond what Gibson had said.

“[Stevenson] said, ‘What are you looking at?’” James recalled. And, according to James, after Stevenson threatened to shoot him in the face, James took action that would change all of their lives forever.

“I picked up a rock about a foot next to me and threw it at his body,” James said. He added he aimed for Stevenson’s arm, prompting some in the courtroom’s packed gallery to react audibly.

Blomquist’s cross-examination focused on discrepancies between James’ account and the testimony of Gibson, Sauer and Gilbert, such as when and from where James got the concrete fragment that killed Stevenson. Whereas Sauer and Gilbert recalled James leaving the lot and returning to hit Stevenson, Stevenson maintained he never went out to South Streeper Street. They also testified that James was within a few feet of Stevenson when he laid him low, but James said he was about 10 feet away.

“So you’re a good baseball player?” Blomquist asked.

“I’ve never played baseball a day in my life,” James responded. “I threw it to defend my life and my friend’s life.”

Blomquist confirmed with James that no one saw a gun throughout the incident.

“Because the only weapon that was there that night was this,” he said, holding up the chunk of concrete.