Sian James, who testified he acted in self-defense when he threw a concrete chunk at an off-duty city police officer during a parking dispute last fall, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter by a Baltimore jury Monday afternoon.
After a two-day trial in the Baltimore City Circuit Court last week and a day of deliberation, the jury decided the 26-year-old Jiffy Lube manager from Jamaica did not mean for Detective Brian Stevenson to die.
“We just didn’t feel the intent to kill that man was there,” said a member of the jury who was standing outside the courthouse after the verdict. Noting the sensitive nature of the case, she declined to give her name.
“It’s just an unfortunate situation, but we just couldn’t put more on an individual than we felt that he deserved,” the woman said.
James was acquitted of first- and second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter and carrying a deadly weapon.
Sitting in chains at the defense table, James wept after hearing the jury’s decision.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, which was crowded with officers who had attended the trial, Stevenson’s mother sobbed. Assistant State’s Attorney Charles Blomquist, who argued James should have known the fist-sized rock would kill Stevenson if it hit him in the head, told her he was sorry.
“Not fair,” she said between breaths. “It’s not.”
James faces up to 10 years in prison at sentencing on July 27. His attorney, John S. Denholm Jr., said he will file a motion for a new trial in the meantime, and if that fails, file an appeal after sentencing based on Judge Barry G. Williams’ instructions to the jury. Denholm believes the partial self-defense instruction should have been read after each of the murder and manslaughter counts.
Around midday on Monday, the 12-member jury, which was three-quarters female and three-quarters black, asked for a dictionary and sought clarification on the charge of involuntary manslaughter. Judge Williams denied their request for a dictionary and told them he would answer questions they had about specific legal terms. They asked no further questions before announcing they had a verdict after 4 p.m.
Denholm, a former detective and prosecutor himself, said because James killed a police officer, the case was “stacked against him.”
“I think, because we have a dead officer, there was extra emphasis put on the charges,” he said.
If everyone hadn’t been drinking or if Stevenson, an 18-year veteran, had identified himself as an officer, the crime never would have happened, Denholm added.
According to court testimony, Stevenson drove to Southeast Baltimore along with his childhood friend, Kitrick Stewart, on the evening of Oct. 16 to celebrate what would have been his 38th birthday the next day.
According to Stewart, they had already had a few drinks by around 10 p.m. when they drove into a small lot at the corner of Hudson and South Streeper Streets. There, Nicole Sauer, the girlfriend of James’ roommate, was standing in a vacant spot, according to her testimony, reserving it for a friend, Molly Gilbert.
Stevenson parked his Cadillac Escalade truck in the spot, prompting Sauer to call back to the house around the corner where James and their friends were drinking and getting ready to go out at Power Plant Live!
After Sauer’s boyfriend, Robert Gibson, heard what had happened, he and James walked down the block to the parking lot. Stevenson and Stewart had left the lot, but they returned because Gilbert told them their truck would be towed, setting the stage for the confrontation between the four men.
According to James and his three associates, Stevenson was the aggressor, cursing and eventually walking up to Gibson and threatening to shoot him in the face. James, who testified for a half-hour Friday, said Stevenson then made similar threats to him while “fiddling with his waist.” Stewart denied Stevenson threatened anyone.
There were slightly differing accounts about exactly when and from where James picked up the fist-sized rock and how close he was when he threw it at Stevenson, but James admitted on the stand that he dealt what turned out to be the fatal blow. The question for the jury was whether he was acting in complete self-defense, partial self-defense or not in self-defense at all, in which case the verdict would have been murder.