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Lawyers preparing civil suits for victims of police shooting

The four Baltimore police officers who failed to recognize William H. Torbit Jr. as one of their own and shot him dead Jan. 9 refused to cooperate with an independent review board that released its report Thursday. But the public may yet get to hear their version of what happened that night.

Solo practitioner A. Dwight Pettit is representing one of the three bystanders who was wounded when Torbit and the other four officers fired 42 shots in six seconds in a crowded parking lot outside the Select Lounge nightclub.

In a phone interview Friday, Pettit said he has put the city “on notice” and is collaborating with Michael A. Pulver of The Yost Legal Group on a civil complaint that might compel the officers to submit to questioning.

“We are in the process of preparing the civil litigation,” Pettit said. “Of course, we will bring those officers in for their depositions. That information will come out.”

Pulver, who is representing one of the other wounded victims, was less optimistic about learning any new details. He said he fully intended to depose the officers, but added that if he were representing them he would advise them to continue to invoke the Fifth Amendment.

State’s Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein announced in August that no criminal charges would be filed against the four officers who shot Torbit. Three other officers, including a commander and a supervisor, also declined to answer the board’s questions, hampering the investigation.

During a news conference Thursday, Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said all seven were still on the force, though the shooters had been moved to administrative posts.

Pettit’s client, Jamie Jordan, was shot in the arm when a fight outside the Select Lounge on Paca Street escalated into a hail of gunfire — all from police bullets.

Torbit, on active duty but in plainclothes, got into a confrontation with Sean Gamble, 22, that quickly turned physical. Torbit found himself on the ground surrounded by six to eight people who were punching, kicking and choking him, according to the panel’s 169-page report.

Torbit reportedly drew his gun and fired eight shots at his attackers. Four uniformed officers — Harry Pawley, Toyia Williams, Latora Craig and Harry Dodge — responded to the shots by firing at Torbit 34 times from a distance of 5 to 8 feet.

Torbit was shot 21 times, while several other bullets missed, hit the ground and ricocheted into the crowd.

The independent review board determined that Torbit and the other officers’ use of lethal force fell within the police department’s policy, but with “important qualifications,” noting that “shooting into a crowded parking lot in the dark is questionable and very dangerous to numerous bystanders.”

Pettit said he had the same reaction long before the board released its report.

“I had substantial concerns that these officers would fire into a crowd,” he said. “That, to me, is obviously reckless endangerment.”

When the shooting stopped, Torbit and Gamble were dead, Dodge had been shot in the foot and three club-goers — Jazzmin Graves, Katrina Harris and Jordan — also had sustained gunshot wounds.

A month later, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake appointed the five-member “blue ribbon” panel of law enforcement experts to review the incident. Based on eyewitness testimony, video surveillance and police dispatch recordings, they found 20 deficiencies in police training, protocols and actions that led to the incident.

Pettit said Jordan was called before the panel and testified for about 45 minutes.

“My client was very forthcoming,” he said. “She was right there, but she dove on the ground when the shooting started. That did not save her from being wounded.”

Pettit said the Torbit and Gamble families contacted his office after the shootings, but did not retain him as counsel.

Doubly damaged

Pulver is representing Graves, who also appeared before the independent review board. He said she was shot in the head by a bullet, or a fragment of a bullet, while she was on the ground just feet from Torbit and Gamble.

“Luckily the bullet basically creased her head,” Pulver said. “It basically ran down the middle, where you’d part your hair.”

Pulver said stitches were required to close the wound, but the greater damage was to Graves’ psyche. She’d come to Club Select to celebrate her birthday and watched two men get shot to death in front of her.

“It did a number on her,” Pulver said.