An Anne Arundel County police officer told a jury here today that he shot and killed a motorist stopped for a routine traffic violation because the man suddenly attacked him and "I was in fear for my life."
Officer David Hodge, 27, took the stand in his own defense on the opening day of his trial on manslaughter charges, brought by prosecutors who argued that Hodge was, in fact, not under attack at all when he killed 48-year-old Leroy Perry of Annapolis last July.
The case has become a cause celebre to Anne Arundel's black community and a thorn to the county's police force, which has weathered controversy surrounding two other fatal shootings in the past year. Perry was black and the officer is white.
The trial was moved to the Circuit Court in this far Western Maryland town because of heavy publicity. Still, a score of Anne Arundel police officers drove more than 200 miles to sit in this old, high-domed courtroom, where they watched their fellow officer with rapt attention from balcony seats.
As the trial got under way, prosecutor George Lantzos asserted that an object that Perry had in his hand on the night of the shooting -- a screwdriver -- "was not used in an aggressive or threatening manner" and that the motorist was killed "unlawfully."
The most dramatic moment in the day of fast-paced testimony, which brought the trial near completion, came when the youthful-looking Hodge stepped to the stand and with hands clasped tightly together told how he killed Perry in the predawn hours of July 20.
Hodge said that at about 3:15 a.m. an erratically driven car passed his police car on Ritchie Highway. It swerved in front of him, accelerated, veered in front of a taxi, and when Hodge put on his emergency lights the car slammed on its brakes and pulled to the side of the road, he testified.
Hodge said he believed he was stopping a drunken driver, and, as he approached the car, "nothing was out of the ordinary."
Hodge said the driver got out, walked to the back of the car and produced his license, but when Hodge asked for his registration, the motorist went to the passenger side of the car, got in and started looking in the glove compartment.
Hodge testified that despite his repeated questions, the motorist "never said a word to me."
Hodge said he was still standing by the car's open passenger door, his flashlight trained on the glove compartment, when he turned away momentarily to look at an approaching car.
"I turned back around . . . . Mr. Perry was standing up very quickly. His right arm started to raise . . . . I realized he had an object in his hand," Hodge told the jurors.
"At that point, I thought it was an ice pick, a silver object with a shaft . . . . Mr. Perry brought the object down very quickly toward where I was standing.
"I tried to retreat, get away from him . . . . By that time I had stepped back, drawn my service revolver. He never said a word . . . . I fired a shot . . . . He didn't react at all. He continued lunging at me . . . . I continued to move backward, extended my arm and fired a second shot."
Perry "froze," stepped back, spun around and fell backward, according to Hodge. Perry's right hand opened and a screwdriver fell out, the officer said.
Members of Perry's family have maintained that Perry was getting the screwdriver only to pry open his broken trunk and get his registration card.
Today in court Shirley Perry, the widow of the Maryland state employe, fought back tears as she told the jury that her husband kept the registration in the trunk because their car's glove compartment had previously been burglarized.
An Anne Arundel County evidence technician, Detective Andrew Grabus, testified that during his inspection of Perry's maroon Chevrolet after the shooting he found the registration inside a briefcase in the trunk. Grabus testified that he himself used a second screwdriver found in the car's front seat to open the broken trunk.
The prosecutor called two witnesses today, including an Anne Arundel police officer, who saw portions of the incident. But Lantzos told jurors, "No witnesses saw everything, except for Leroy Perry who is dead." Though the information was not introduced during today's proceedings, Hodge twice before has been tried and ultimately acquitted on charges of assaulting men while performing his police duties.