By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham
Special to the AFRO
The Maryland State Prosecutor has pursued Kelvin Sewell, the first Black police chief of Pocomoke City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for four years over allegations he interfered in a 2014 accident investigation. But now a series of briefs filed by civil rights organizations in support of Sewell’s appeal of a 2019 misconduct conviction argue the case was retaliatory.
In fact, the filings allege the motive for the extended prosecution by the office responsible for investigating public officials was not an effort to battle corruption, but payback for Sewell’s efforts to call attention to deeply rooted racism on the Lower Eastern Shore.
“History teaches us, if not today, years from now, the firing and criminal prosecution of Kelvin Sewell will be yet another shameful example of how Black People were punished for resisting racial discrimination on the Eastern Shore,” The Citizens for a Better Pocomoke argued in an amicus brief obtained by The AFRO.
Former Pocomoke Police Chief Kelvin Sewell. (Courtesy Photo)
Sewell was fired by the Pocomoke city council in July of 2015. During his tenure crime dropped to record lows, but a nearly all-White council terminated Sewell without explanation.
Prior to his termination Sewell and two subordinate Black officers had filed EEOC complaints alleging racism in Worcester County Drug Task Force. After his termination Sewell filed a lawsuit alleging he was let go for refusing to fire the same two officers.
But shortly afterwards the Office of Special Prosecutor opened a wide-ranging investigation into Sewell.
Investigators settled on a 2014 accident.
In November 2014 Pocomoke resident Doug Matthews hit two parked cars, drove three blocks home, and then called police. Prosecutors allege Sewell should have charged Matthews with leaving the scene of the accident, but didn’t because both men were members of a local Black Mason’s chapter.
Both the scope, and the timing of the charges were unprecedented, the filings argue.
“Until the prosecution of Mr. Sewell, OSP had prosecuted one other police officer in the last 25 years for a non-financial crime,’” the Howard University Law Clinic argued.
“Furthermore, the cases investigated almost all have involved concrete allegations of wrongdoing, rather than the pursuit of vague unsubstantiated rumors.”
The filings by the ACLU of Maryland, The Howard University Civil Rights Law Clinic are the latest salvo in a case that led to two trials, two convictions, and one reversal by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. Collectively the briefs allege both the timing of the case and the far reaching nature of the investigation was unprecedented.
“First, OSP willfully blinded itself to this reality, then became complicit, investing enormous resources in trying to discredit Sewell,” the ACLU argues in their brief.
The most contentious part of the filings focus on the prosecutor’s use of a grand jury after allegations that the state’s star witness, Tanya Barnes, had recanted.
Barnes testified that Sewell’s behavior was unusual the night of the accident, and that he had prevented her from investigating Matthews for driving while intoxicated. However, according to an avadavat filed by Sewell, Barnes recanted her testimony to him during an encounter in 2019.
“I’m not going to let the investigators make me lie again.” Barnes allegedly told Sewell.
When Sewell’s lawyers informed prosecutors that Barnes had recanted, the OSP convened a grand jury. Then, they subpoenaed a colleague who witnessed the interaction between Sewel and Barnes, accusing him of lying about the conversation outside the grand jury room. The threat prompted the witness to plead the fifth, thus precluding him from testifying on Sewell’s behalf.
In their brief, State Prosecutors counter the grand jury was impaneled to investigate Sewell’s allegations, not to intimidate witnesses. They also say the charges against Sewell were warranted because of his mutual membership in the black mason’s organization with Matthews which prompted him to interfere with the investigation.