The prince George's County attorney's office has asked a court to transfer out of the county two civil suits involving county police officers, arguing that the officers cannot receive a fair trial in Prince George's because of adverse publicity.
In one case, the family of William Ray is suing officer Peter F. Morgan for $1.5 million, alleging that he "wrongfully," shot and killed Morgan on Dec. 24, 1977.
In the other, five county men are suing six county police officers over an incident that took place May 17, 1977, in which the five were stopped by police who had an arrest warrant for the brother of one of the men. The plaintiffs in that case are asking for a total of $540,000.
"Media reports regarding the performance of the Prince George's County police department make it impossible for the defendants to receive a fair trial by a jury in Prince George's County," the six police officers in the second case argued in their motion filed in Prince George's Circuit Court.
"I think the officers just feel that as a result of all the publicity in these cases and in the past and because of discussions we've been involved with jurors (in other cases) the officers felt they might not be able to get a fair hearing before a jury here," County Attorney Robert B. Ostrom said yesterday.
At least one attorney in the second case, Fred Warren Bennett, said he will oppose the motion for change of venue. "It's as it they are saying that Lefty Driesell (University of Maryland basketball coach) can't get fair refereeing in Cole Field House (the team's home court) because he's been criticized in the past by the newspapers.
The change of venue motions are believed to be the first in civil cases involving the police where the county has requested that the case be moved.
County police union President Laney Hester said yesterday he found the change of venue motions distressing. "I think it's really sad," he said. "Apparently we've gotten to the point where things have gotten so bad that no one thinks a police officer in this county can get a fair trial no matter what the facts in the case. It's disappointing as hell."
Police chief John W. Rhoads would not speculate on the motions but said, "I guess they just want to go wherever the hell they can get the fairest trial. That's fine with me."
Morgan's shooting of Ray because a cause celebre, first in the black community, which charged that Morgan had committed "murder" by shooting an unarmed, Fleeing shoplifting suspect and then among police when Morgan was fired as a result of the shooting. Earlier this month, Morgan, 23, was reinstated.
The second case in which the six policemen involved allegedly drew their shotgunss and searched the five plaintiffs, even though none was charged with a crime, received no publicity at the time.
Recently, the county police department has been the subject of voluminous publicity because of the trial of Terrence Johnson, 16, who shot and killed two county police officers last June. Johnson, who charged he was being beaten by one of the officers before the shootings, was convicted of manslaughter and illegal use of handgun but acquitted of murder charges.