What sounded like a gunshot was heard yesterday in D.C. Superior Court when a bullet was discharged from its casing during the trial of a man charged with drug and gun offenses.
The bizarre incident caused a brief panic in the courtroom. It occurred about 2:30 p.m. as the prosecutor was trying to hand an evidence bag containing several pieces of ammunition to a police officer who was testifying, according to authorities.
But the brown paper bag fell to the floor, and one of the rounds inside detonated, according to Steve Conboy, U.S. marshal for Superior Court. The small explosion ripped apart the bag and sent the casing six or seven feet into the well of the courtroom and the bullet 12 or 13 inches to the feet of the court stenographer, Conboy said.
No one was injured, but in the immediate confusion, a swarm of security officers rushed to Courtroom 316 to aid the two deputy marshals posted there.
The jurors were quickly ushered out of the courtroom. At least a few were shaken by the incident, as was the court reporter, according to Conboy. At the request of the defense, the judge, Robert Rigsby, declared a mistrial in the case against Brian Demetrius Gardner.
"I'm just thankful nobody got hurt," Rigsby said last night.
A juror who was sitting near the witness stand said last night that he watched the strange incident unfold and realized right away that no gun had been fired. "My only concern was when it went off, where did the projectile of the bullet go," said the 56-year-old man, who was serving on a D.C. jury for the first time and asked that his name not be published.
It is not unusual for live ammunition to be brought into court as evidence. But the Marshals Service is investigating the incident and will advise the court's administration if procedural changes are needed.
Conboy, who is in charge of security for Superior Court, went to the courtroom to examine the ammunition, as did D.C. police investigators.
Conboy believes the cartridge that exploded was already unstable, perhaps because it had been through a misfire. In such a misfire, the firing pin would have dented the primer, the part of the cartridge containing the explosive compound, perhaps making the primer more vulnerable, Conboy said.
One expert said that was possible. "If you throw a bullet against a wall, generally it won't go off," said Robert Anderson, a San Francisco area materials engineer who said he has testified frequently as a firearms expert. "But if you've already partially dented the cap on it, then it is more susceptible to a shock."
But another expert, Gaylan Warren, a former police firearms examiner in Washington state, said that even if the primer were dented, it would not have been any more likely to detonate. Something, such as the edge of one of the other cartridges, had to act as a firing pin to cause detonation, he said. The chances of that happening, he said, were one in a million. "It's extremely rare."
The spot where the ammunition was dropped was near an electrical cord connected to the stenographer's equipment, and Conboy said the electrical current might have been a factor. Anderson, while not ruling out such a possibility, said it is not likely unless wiring was exposed.