When Baltimore resident Kendra Diggs called police to her Northeast Baltimore home on Parrish Street in May of 2013, she was desperate. Her face was bruised and bloodied, the result of a beating administered by her fiancé, James Smith. Her five-year-old son cowed in terror. The walls of an already strained relationship were closing in.
Police arrived, but instead of removing Smith from the premises, they directed Diggs, who had fled the premises to stand next to a fence in the front yard. She told them Smith had a gun. And then as one of the officers tried to talk to Smith, a shot rang out, striking Diggs in the head.
That’s because Smith, a veteran Baltimore police officer and sharpshooter, had scurried to the second floor of their row home to shoot at Diggs. The police officers had placed her directly in the line of fire.
As she laid splayed against the fence seriously wounded, witnesses testified, the officers took cover. And then Smith fired another shot, a fatal one, hitting Diggs in the head killing the 37-year-old mother of two as neighbors looked on in horror.
James Smith, once a veteran Baltimore police officer, was charged with first degree murder in the shooting death of his fiancé Kendra Diggs. He later committed suicide in his jail cell. (Courtesy Photo)
After releasing his son, Smith temporality barricaded himself inside the home. He was later arrested and charged with first degree murder.
These are the facts which emerged during a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Diggs’ family against the two Baltimore city police officers who responded to the call. The case recounted a sequence of events that lawyer A. Dwight Pettit, who represents the family told the AFRO was “gut wrenching.”
“The officers left her by the fence,” Pettit said.
Last week a circuit court jury sided with the plaintiffs and awarded $850,000 for negligence. The suit alleged that police failed to protect Diggs, or take adequate steps to insure her safety, and failed to disarm her husband who police knew had a gun.
Pettit says the case hinged upon the implicit responsibility outlined in the department’s internal rules that police officers must protect people in their custody.
“It’s a progressive victory in terms of the law that police do have responsibility to protect you when they assume control of an incident,” Pettit said.
“In this case they were on the scene and allegedly had control of the situation.”
According to Pettit, the testimony from a neighbor of Diggs was critical to the case. She told jurors she watched Diggs cling to the fence after being wounded by the first shot, while officers took cover. Seconds later Smith delivered the fatal shot.
Smith, 49, was jailed without bond. However, the 20-year veteran officer, who was assigned to the city’s motorcade unit, was found unresponsive in his cell in August of 2013. Corrections officials later determined Smith committed suicide by hanging himself.
The jury declined to award damages for the arrest of Diggs’ oldest son who was taken into custody shortly after he arrived on the scene the night his mother was murdered. He was released three hours later without charges. Police said the arrest was for his own protection.
The $850,000 award will most likely be reduced, because state law caps municipal liability to $200,000 per victim for lawsuits filed prior to 2016. Pettit filed the lawsuit on behalf of Diggs’ family in 2014. The limit has since been raised to $250,000. Pettit says he does not know if the city will appeal the verdict.
The AFRO called city solicitor David Ralph for comment, but he did not respond by press time.