Anthony J. Zavosky, the D.C. police officer who shot and killed a maintenance man who had entered his town house in Greenbelt to change a furnace filter, was acquitted of all charges here this afternoon.
Circuit Court Judge Perry G. Bowen Jr. found Zavosky not guilty of charges of manslaughter and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony after listening to Zavosky testify today.
Zavosky, 25, wept and embraced members of his family when Bowen announced his decision here in the Calvert County courthouse.
Prince George's County prosecutors originally had charged the four-year police veteran with first-degree murder in the death of James Brown, 53, but Bowen dismissed that charge yesterday, ruling there was no evidence supporting either premeditation or malice.
Zavosky, 25, testified that he was "still half asleep and startled and a bit frightened" when he awoke last Feb. 17 and saw Brown in his town house and "assumed he was breaking in." Testimony showed that Brown was shot five times, once in the front and four times in the back, with Zavosky's .38-caliber service revolver.
Brown had worked at the Springhill Lake apartment complex 12 years and was well-known by many of the tenants, but Zavosky testified that he did not know him.
When Zavosky opened his bedroom door, he said, "I saw a black man wearing a yellow slicker carrying a screw-driver in his right hand" a couple of feet away from him. He said both he and the maintenance man screamed, and he then took his service revolver from the holster on his dresser.
By that time, he said, the man was headed down the stairs. "When I got into the stairwell, he was in the process of turning towards me, with that screwdriver still in his hand." He said he was "convinced" he was "in danger of bodily harm," and fired his revolver several times. He said the man "walked, stumbled and fell down the stairs."
Zavosky's trial was moved to Calvert County after his attorneys complained that pretrial publicity might prejudice jurors in Prince George's. Once the change of venue was granted, defense attorneys asked for the case to be tried by a judge and not a jury. That action placed Zavosky's fate with Bowen, Calvert County's only circuit judge, who had been described by observers as "a very strict law-and-order guy."
Speaking from the bench, Bowen said that because Zavosky had been startled from his sleep and found a man carrying a large screw-driver standing outside his bedroom door "presented a reasonable ground to believe . . . that he was in immediate and imminent danger of serious bodily harm."
Bowen said an accumulation of factors led to Brown's death, including the fact that Zavosky, who had worked the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift and was asleep at 3 o'clock in the afternoon when Brown came to change the filters, and that the maintenance man was wearing a rain jacket over his uniform and was carrying the screwdriver.
The judge found it "significant" that Zavosky was frightened and naked when he shot Brown, and that the officer could not be expected to react the same way he would if he was clothed and in uniform. "All that was left of his police training was his ability to shoot straight and very rapidly," the judge said.
"An unfortunate and tragic occurrence it is," Bowen said. "A crime, I do not think it is."
Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Orenstein argued that a "reasonable person" would not be justified in killing Brown under those circumstances. Orenstein said a person "does not pose any threat (who) walks away from the defendant, not towards him, and is not making any threatening gestures towards the defendant." Zavosky, he said, "was not just any man, but a man who was trained as a police officer."
Lt. Robert F. White, who is in charge of firearms training for the D.C. police, testified this morning that officers are trained to aim at the center of an opponent's body, and that the number of shots fired was "discretionary." An officer is trained to fire "until he or she feels that the danger no longer exists," White said.
About a dozen District of Columbia police officers who had worked with Zavosky on the midnight shift in Washington's 4th District were in the courtroom today and congratulated their partner after the verdict.
"I was of the opinion that it never should have been a trial in the first place," said Stephen Beach, who worked the same shift.
Several officers, including Beach, complained that the state's decision to prosecute Zavosky for murder was "a political" effort to avoid criticism in a county where shootings by police have caused tension in the past. Prosecutors "had nothing to lose" by charging the officer with murder, said Maurice McDonald, a former 4th District captain who headed Zavosky's night shift.
Meanwhile, several residents of the Greenbelt apartment complex where both Brown and his wife, Doretha, were employed, said they were unhappy with the verdict and troubled that Zavosky didn't give a warning, and that he fired so many times.
"It's got to be a big question," said Willie Mackall, who said he had known Brown for 10 years. "A guy with police experience shooting someone in the back--a man who's got a good reputation. Mr. Brown, he was a really beautiful person. Someone has to tell me how this could be."
Carolyn Burns, whose husband worked in the maintenance department with Brown, said "it's a wrong decision. To shoot once, that could have been manslaughter. But to shoot several times, and hit every time, that's murder."
Burns' daughter, Nancy, said the maintenance men "are very scared now. They go in there (to work in apartments) three at a time."
"I just don't think that justice was done," said a coworker of Brown's. The man, who did not want to be identified, added, "This is something we feared could happen and now it finally has. It's going to be felt for a long time, not just by the maintenance people and not just by the people at Springhill Lake, but by everyone who has ever had to enter someone else's home."
Christopher Viamonte, a 4th District officer who shared the town house with Zavosky, said "it was tragic, tragic, but 'murder one?' No way. All the evidence went along with what Tony said."
Barry L. Leibowitz, Zavosky's attorney, said he expects his client, who has been on administrative leave without pay, to be reinstated within two days.