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Witness in Tshamba trial: Marine begged officer not to shoot

Both before and after Baltimore Police Officer Gahiji Tshamba shot Tyrone Brown in the early morning hours of June 5, 2010, the off-duty officer talked about “disrespect,” the first witness in his murder trial testified Wednesday.

He used that word after Brown slapped Tshamba’s scantily clad female companion on the behind outside a Mount Vernon nightclub, and he said it again in the minutes after the fatal confrontation, according to Jacqueline Hill, the witness.

“I didn’t understand it,” said Hill, a Baltimore County social service worker.

Hill had been celebrating both her birthday and the adoption of a child at a nearby club and was making her way down an alley to the lot where her husband had parked when, according to her hour-long testimony, she saw the whole incident unfold. Her cheery tone changed as her testimony transitioned from the happiness of June 4 to the tragedy of June 5.

Through tears and halting breaths, Hill described a confrontation between the two men that escalated quickly and ended shockingly with the smaller man in the white shirt gunning down the larger man in the black shirt — even as Brown retreated with his hands up and pleaded for his life.

“He said, ‘Please, I’m a Marine. I have children. Don’t do this,’” Hill recalled some of Brown’s final words. From her nearby vantage point in the parking lot, Hill said she saw Tshamba shoot Brown six times, including “in his groin area.”

But Hill conceded she told police the morning of the incident that Brown had tried to push Tshamba away before the shooting.

Hill’s testimony, mostly damning words from a seemingly unbiased bystander, was the most compelling segment of Wednesday’s court proceedings, which also included short opening statements from the attorneys and testimony from one of the first officers to respond to the scene.

The courtroom gallery included officers seated among Tshamba’s section of supporters and Brown’s mother sitting an aisle apart from the rest of the 32-year-old victim’s family.

While Assistant State’s Attorney Kevin Wiggins’ narrative to the Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon closely followed Hill’s account — “This didn’t have to happen,” he told Hargadon — lead defense attorney James L. Rhodes told a markedly different tale, casting Tshamba as a responsible officer who was trying to maintain law and order.

“Mr. Brown made the initial contact with the officer,” Rhodes said. “The officer retreats, and it is not until he continues to retreat that shots are fired.”

Upon Tshamba’s request at the close of Tuesday’s pretrial motions hearing, Hargadon, not a jury, will decide whether the officer is guilty of first-degree murder, a lesser offense or nothing at all. The trial, which will resume Thursday morning after a half day Wednesday, is expected to run through next week.

Rhodes said Tshamba identified himself as a police officer, only to be one-upped by Brown’s status as a war veteran. Hill said she never heard him say any such thing but testified that “during the incident, someone might have said something.” On cross-examination, she claimed she only learned that Tshamba was a cop later that morning and was incredulous.

“No officer would do that,” she said, adding that when she saw an officer parked outside the clubs that night it made her feel safe.

But according to news reports and the civil suit Brown’s family filed in January against Tshamba and the city police department, the incident a year ago was not the first time the 37-year-old officer has fired his service weapon during an off-duty altercation. Tshamba was disciplined after a September 2005 incident in which he shot a man in the foot while intoxicated.

Whether alcohol played a role in the more serious shooting a year ago was the main topic of conversation during Maj. Eric Russell’s turn on the witness stand Wednesday. Russell, who had worked with Tshamba in the Eastern District, testified about his police report that said Tshamba’s eyes were glazed and his speech was slurred.

“He appeared to be drunk in my opinion, yes,” Russell responded to Wiggins’ question about what he observed as he spoke to Tshamba from outside the police car in which the defendant was sitting.

On cross-examination, Tshamba attorney Adam Sean Cohen grilled Russell about how he knew Tshamba’s reflective eyes indicated he had been drinking even though he could not remember whether the defendant was wearing glasses that night. Russell conceded the light wasn’t great but said he’s known “Haji” — a nickname he used for Tshamba — with and without glasses. Russell conceded that he wasn’t in full investigative mode during the conversation, only writing up a brief report two days later at the behest of a boss.

“I just wanted to make sure that he was okay,” Russell said.

Legal affairs reporter Danielle Ulman and intern Taaj Amin contributed to this article.