The fired black police chief of Pocomoke City, Md., was convicted Wednesday of a misconduct charge in a case that revived racial tensions in the Eastern Shore community.
Kelvin Sewell’s conviction comes after city officials in March settled a federal civil rights lawsuit the former chief filed alleging an “unchecked pattern and practice of virulent” discrimination and agreed to reform its police policies and training.
Maryland’s state prosecutor put Sewell on trial for the second time following an appeals court ruling that overturned the conviction at his first trial. Sewell was accused of improperly interfering in the investigation of a 2014 car crash.
The Worcester County jury — of six men and six women, including one African American — deliberated for two hours before returning its verdict.
The state charge of misconduct in office does not carry a set penalty. Sewell’s sentence will be set by the judge in the case, W. Newton Jackson III.
“We’ve said all along this was a serious matter,” Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt said after the verdict. “This wasn’t a case about an officer’s discretion; it was a case of the chief interfering with a subordinate and closing down an investigation.”
Sewell’s attorney Lloyd Liu said, “We’re disappointed by the result and we’re looking forward to next steps.” He said Sewell’s legal team is likely to appeal.
In court this week, Davitt told jurors Sewell had violated his oath to enforce the law without bias by not filing charges after the traffic incident. He elicited testimony from two police officers who said they were troubled by Sewell’s involvement in the investigation. One officer characterized it as “strange,” and the other testified that she was directed by Sewell to handle the collision as an accident — and not a hit-and-run.
Sewell’s attorney Barry Coburn emphasized the former chief’s discretion to make decisions about when to charge suspects in investigations. Sewell had not “acted corruptly,” Coburn told jurors.
Civil rights leaders had pressed Davitt to drop the case after the appeals court ruling in November. The state charges would not have been brought, Sewell’s supporters said, had he and two other black police officers not spoken out against racial discrimination in Worcester County law enforcement. Sewell’s firing by the City Council in 2015 prompted protests in the city of 4,000 people.
Davitt, the prosecutor, said Sewell’s federal lawsuit and discrimination complaints were not connected to his case.
The incident that led to the trial occurred at about 11:30 p.m. on a Friday in November 2014. Douglas Matthews — then a state corrections officer — was driving home from a meeting at the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge and crashed into two unoccupied parked carswith such force that one of the wheels on his car detached, court records show. Matthews testified he fell asleep at the wheel after working long shifts at two jobs. He had trouble using the brakes, he testified, and continued to drive the remaining few blocks to his home.
Matthews’s first call to report the accident was to Sewell’s second-in-command, then-Lt. Lynell Green, who then called Sewell.
Davitt pointed out at trial that all three men were members of the Masons organization, suggesting Green and Sewell had stepped in to help a friend.
Sewell concluded that the crash was an accident, and Matthews was not charged.
Sewell’s attorney questioned Green this week about whether he and the former chief had tried to “cut Mr. Matthews a break” because they were part of the same organization. “No, sir,” Green responded.
The jury foreman, Warren Rosenfeld, a former litigator and current Ocean City restaurant owner, said after the verdict that jurors “generally felt that the chief was not a bad cop, but the chief was perhaps a very good cop with a long career who perhaps had put too much trust and reliance on his lieutenant.”
Rosenfeld said jurors also “couldn’t get past that even to this day Matthews had not been cited for anything, and the fact that the officer had been implicitly or explicitly told to end his investigation.”
Sewell, now chief senior investigator in the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, served as Pocomoke City’s chief from 2011 until 2015. In his federal lawsuit filed in January 2016, Sewell said he was forced out after refusing to fire two black officers: Green and Franklin Savage. Sewell and Savage had filed race discrimination complaints against the policedepartment, and later the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the state’s attorney.
As part of the settlement, the city agreed to pay Sewell and Green $450,000 and $200,000, respectively, in damages.