A Prince George's County police trial board has recommended that Officer Peter F. Morgan, who shot and killed an unarmed shoplifting suspect who was fleeing from custody last Dec. 24, be dismissed from the force.
A different trial board last night acquitted a second Prince George's officer of the major charges against him in the shooting death of an unarmed burglary suspect Jan. 21. That officer, Lester J. Bethel, is still subject to disciplinary action on a trial board finding that he was guilty of carrying a shotgun not his own, but observers said a fine is the maximum punishment likely to be recommended.
The dismissal recommended in the case of officer Morgan is the harshest penalty the administrative board could recommend. Morgan's future as a police officer is now up to Chief John W. Rhaoads, who generally follows trial board recommendations.
Observers said it was the first time a trial board had called for firing an officer in connection with a shooting at least since 1974.
The trial board, consisting of a police major, a captain and a private, made its recommendation Tuesday after finding Morgan guilty May 1 of two charges involving the use of excessive force and hearing character witnesses testify May 26. Morgan learned of the recommendation yesterday.
The shooting by Morgan and the one by Bethel four weeks later set off charges of racism by members of the county's black community. Both of the officers are white and the slain suspects black.
Following the shootings, Chief Rhoads toughened guidelines on the discharge of firearms, banning "deadly force" except in cases of "clear and present danger" of serious injury or death to the policeman or someone else.
Morgan's trial board followed a decision by a county grand jury not to indict him on criminal charges in the fatal shooting of David Ray, 32, of 1830 Providence St. NE.
Ray had been arrested on Christmas Eve on charges of shoplifting two hams from a supermarket and was being processed in the Seat Pleasant police station prior to incarceration when he broke away, according to testimony.
Morgan pursued Ray across Addison Road in front of the station, ordering him to halt three times, then firing one shot that hit Ray in the back of the head.
Ray had been a drug addict, and Morgan had taken a syringe away from him in the police staion. The officer testified he considered Ray a desperate drug addict who needed a fix, had no cash to buy one, had exhibited lack of respect for the law, and had almost caused a passing motorcycle to have an accident as he fled across the street. "I thought, 'I got to stop him before something else happens,'" Morgan testified.
Laney Hester, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police chapter, said yesterday he wasn't surprised by the trial board's recommendation, 'but I certainly hope the chief will decide against the recommendation. There was a similar incident at the Seat Pleasant station nine years ago and nothing had been done in those nine years to improve security there."
"The department shares the blame in this," Hester declared. "They put a 22-year-old officer who had never fired his weapon before in the line of duty in a position where he was forced to make a decision he should not have had to make."
The trial board recommended Morgan's dismissal for unsatisfactory performance of duty in using excessive force. It also recommended a 20-day suspension for violating the general order on the use of firearms in effect at the time of the shooting. That permitted use of "deadly force" when an escapee endangered lives of others during escape or if an officer believed the escapee was dangerous to the community and would cause substantial injury to others before recapture.
Morgan's attorney, Samuel L. Serio, said that if Rhoads accepts the trial board's recommendation of dismissal, he will appeal the case to the county Circuit Court.
Both Morgan and Bethel have been on administrative leave with pay since the shootings.
After the verdict was read in his case last night, Bethel broke down as he spoke to reporters and said the months since the shooting in which he was involved have been "a living hell."
'In my own mind I always knew I was right," he said. "I knew I was doing my job and trying to protect the people. I don't know," he said, sobbing. "I just hate it. I've hated the whole thing."
The trial board acquitted him of using excessive force when lesser force could have been used and of violating the firearms regulations.
Bethel was responding to a burglar alarm on the morning of Jan. 21 when he spotted Abraham Dickens IV, 18, climbing through a window of the Palmer Restaurant, 7222 George Palmer Hwy., Seat Pleasant.
During three hours of testimony yesterday, Dickens said he cried, "Halt, police!", and, when Dickens made a sudden move as if reaching into a pocket, fired two shotgun blasts.
Internal affairs investigator Sgt. Raymond E. Daniels testified yesterday that Bethel failed to take proper cover. He and defense attorney Benja- suspect and it was the action that forced him to shoot Dickens.
Assistant County Attorney David Grover based much of the prosecution's case on Bethel's failure to take cover. He and defense attorney Benjamin Wolman questioned Daniels for almost four hours yesterday about his conclusion that although Bethel had been cleared by the county prosecutor's office of any criminal wrongdoing, he was guilty of violating police department administrative rules.
Grover said he had no quarrel with the verdict. "Nobody ever said this wasn't a close case," he said. "Apparently the board believed that th officer's life was in danger when the man made the move that indicated he had a gun. It could have gone either way."