Baltimore Police Officer Gahiji Tshamba was found guilty of manslaughter and use of a handgun in a crime of violence in the shooting death of Tyrone Brown on Thursday afternoon. The bench verdict followed a weeklong trial that sought to reconstruct what happened between when Brown slapped Tshamba’s female friend on the backside and when the off-duty officer fired a dozen shots into the former Marine.
Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Edward R.K. Hargadon acquitted Tshamba of first-degree murder and second-degree murder. The 15-year veteran cop could face up to 10 years for the manslaughter and up to 20 years for the gun charge when he is sentenced on Aug. 16, according to the prosecutor in the case.
Hargadon delivered his verdict Thursday afternoon after hearing testimony from, among others, seven eyewitnesses who gave what he called “very divergent accounts of what happened” in the early morning hours of June 5, 2010, in an alley area behind the unit block of East Eager Street.
During an approximately 20-minute statement to a full courtroom patrolled by 10 sheriff’s deputies, Hargadon said Tshamba had “grossly overreacted” to Brown’s touching Crystal Ramsey and had “allowed his personal relationship with Ms. Ramsey to cloud his professional judgment.”
Hargadon said he found Chantay Kangalee, Brown’s younger sister who was called as an adverse witness by the defense, to be “very credible” — more than any other witness — and relied heavily on her version of events to determine Tshamba’s guilt.
Speaking in the bright heat outside the downtown courthouse minutes after the verdict, Kangalee said, “All I could (do) was tell the truth, and that’s what I did.”
“My brother was my best friend,” Kangalee said between tears. “And it was only right for me to stand up for him.”
Hargadon only picked pieces from or almost completely discredited other accounts, including Tshamba’s, according to the five-page typewritten order he read.
The judge was also influenced by a visit to the crime scene Wednesday afternoon, an idea both sides supported before trial began. From that trip roughly 10 blocks north of the downtown courthouse, Hargadon revised his belief that Tshamba was cornered when he fired on the unarmed 32-year-old father of two. Hargadon also concluded from his visit that Tshamba should have seen the marked police cars parked just up the street and could have called upon those officers to handle the situation.
“To be blunt, you would have to be blind to have not seen those cars and one would have only needed to shout to get their attention,” Hargadon said.
Testimony from Kangalee and her friend, Tammy Dodge, convinced the judge that Tshamba did not identify himself as a police officer, as he claimed to have, and testimony from two of Tshamba’s police superiors that Tshamba was impaired outweighed the defendant’s testimony that he had only had one beer that evening. Tshamba had refused to blow into a breathalyzer after the shooting.
Hargadon did find that Tshamba was in fear, which spared him from a second-degree murder verdict.
Tshamba displayed little reaction to the verdict, only saying something inaudible to his supporters in the courtroom gallery before being taken away. Outside the courthouse, his lead defense attorney, James L. Rhodes, who wore a three-piece suit every day of trial, was defiant.
“I’m not sure legally that you believed the officer was scared and that he didn’t have the right to take the action he did,” Rhodes said of the judge’s reasoning.
Just down the courthouse block on North Calvert Street, Brown’s mother, Vivian Scott cried and said she would never forgive Tshamba. Brown’s widow, Loren Dean-Brown, said, “We wish it was more, but it’s good.” And A. Dwight Pettit, who is bringing a civil suit in federal court on behalf of Scott, Dean-Brown and Brown’s children, called the result “historical,” as police are rarely convicted of a crime when they shoot and kill.
Assistant State’s Attorney Kevin Wiggins, who prosecuted the case, said the verdict is “a victory” that will get a “bad cop off the streets.”
Tshamba was not charged until days after the incident and did not turn himself in right away. In March, the Baltimore Sun reported that Brown’s mental health records showed he had a checkered past as well, admitting to serious family violence and having a serious drinking problem.
Over the first half of trial, the prosecution eyewitnesses, including a bystander couple who had never met Tshamba or Brown, testified that the off-duty officer backed Brown behind the Eddie’s supermarket and shot him while Brown pleaded for his life. But then the defense case offered a different version, one where Brown, who was much bigger than Tshamba, was the drunken aggressor.
“What happened in that alley dealt with male ego, alcohol, women and a gun,” Wiggins said in his closing argument Thursday morning. “This was about power and respect, and this trial is about motivation.”
Rhodes poked holes in the prosecution witnesses’ accounts and slighted the thoroughness of the prosecution’s evidence presentation.
“The state’s obligation is to provide justice, not win at all costs,” Rhodes said to Hargadon, whom Tshamba chose to decide his case rather than a jury. “They chose consistently to intentionally omit certain facts, details and witnesses in presenting their case to the court.”
Wiggins conceded Brown was “not a perfect man” but noted he had fought for his country (in Kosovo and Iraq). Wiggins said Tshamba was not allowed to play judge, jury and executioner.
After the verdict, Rhodes stood by his decision to call Kangalee and Tshamba, even though parts of their testimony seemed to doom a generally plausible defense. Asked if the verdict was a compromise, Rhodes said, “Judges are people.”
He said an appeal was forthcoming but would not specify the basis for overturning the verdict.