An Anne Arundel County police officer today was found innocent of manslaughter in the fatal shooting of an Annapolis motorist he had stopped for a routine traffic violation.
Officer David Hodge, who testified during the trial here that he shot 48-year-old Leroy Perry because Perry attacked him and he feared for his life, wept in his father's arms moments after the verdict as he was mobbed by fellow officers who came to show support.
Members of the Perry family sat stolidly on the courtroom's oak benches, their eyes raised to its high-domed ceiling, as they learned that jurors had rejected the prosecution assertion that Perry's death was "unjustified." They left without a word to anyone in the courtroom, and went to Perry's widow, who had waited for the verdict in seclusion outside the courtroom.
The case has become a highly charged issue in Anne Arundel for both the county's black community and its police force ever since the shooting in the predawn hours of July 20. 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, and the jurors here listened to two days of testimony and defense and prosecution arguments.
Hodge testified that Perry, who he said he stopped for erratic driving on Ritchie Highway, began looking in his glove compartment shortly after being stopped, then suddenly "lunged" at him with a screwdriver. Hodge asserted he shot Perry twice because he feared for his life.
Prosecutor George Lantzos said in his closing argument today that Perry used a screwdriver to get into the broken trunk of his car, where he kept his car registration. Lantzos told jurors that the killing was "a mistake, unjustified," and that Hodge, in firing two shots at Perry, used "excessive force."
The all-white jury took only 50 minutes to reach a verdict, taking only one vote on that decision, according to one juror.
Moments after the verdict, a shaken Hodge said, "Here, I was lucky enough to come out alive , but someone still lost his life. It doesn't matter who dies. It is a tragedy, no matter what happens."
The 27-year-old Hodge also expressed concern over the public's attitude toward shootings involving police. "There was a police officer killed in Youngstown Ohio today. It seems to me nobody gave a damn about it. . . . When a police officer is killed there is less publicity than when one survives an attack."
Hodge's feelings about his acquittal were echoed by other officers, who said his indictment and trial may make other policemen fearful of using force when necessary. The officers, however, were fortified by the verdict and said it might help to raise morale on the force.
For its part, the county NAACP chapter had different concerns about the Hodge trial and its outcome. "I don't think police-community relations will be moved one step forward as a result of that trial. And I don't mean just the black community, either," said Jean Creek, head of the county NAACP.
Creek said her organization is moving forward with plans for a special task force to study the use by police of "excessive force." Police in the past year have weathered controversy surrounding two other fatal shootings.
Despite his acquittal on criminal charges, Hodge still could face departmental charges arising from the shooting. The county police chief will review the "entire incident" Monday and make that determination, according to police spokesman Capt. Curtis Nunn.
Hodge may return to the force only after that decision is made. But Hodge said today that he hasn't decided yet what he will do in the future.
Twice before, Hodge has been tried and ultimately acquitted on charges of assaulting men while performing his police duties.
A spokesman for the Perry family said yesterday that they will decide soon whether to pursue any civil action in the case.