By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
Since Pocomoke City’s first Black police chief Kelvin Sewell was fired in 2015 without explanation by the city council amid allegations of racism, the consequences for him and the two Black officers who also claimed discrimination have been far-reaching.
The four-year effort by the Maryland State Prosecutor’s Office to convict Sewell of misconduct for his role in 2014 accident investigation involving two parked cars is still ongoing. Its a case that despite being overturned by The Maryland Court of Special Appeals is now set to be retried in May.
During a protracted battle with the city over a discrimination lawsuit that was recently settled, the state sent investigators into Pocomoke’s Black community to spread rumors that several of the officers had engaged in extramarital affairs.
Two of the officers, Lynell Green and Frank Savage, no longer work in law enforcement.
The charges against Sewell stem from a five-year old accident involving Pocomoke City resident Doug Matthews. Matthews was driving home when he says he fell asleep and hit two parked cars. After the collision Matthews drove three blocks home and called police.
There were no injuries.
Prosecutors allege that Matthews should have been cited for leaving the scene. Sewell’s defense countered that an officer has discretion if and when to write a ticket.
But, prosecutors argued Sewell’s mutual membership with Matthews in an Eastern Shore chapter of the African-American Masons was enough to prove his decision was corrupt, even though there was no evidence Sewell was closely connected to Matthews prior to the accident.
Sewell was convicted of misconduct by a nearly all-White jury in 2016. The Court of Special Appeals overturned the conviction after finding Sewell did not receive a fair trial; the court ruled that a Worcester County judge’s decision to bar Sewell from calling expert witnesses prejudiced the jury.
But a recent series of pre-trial motions reveals a conflict over a key witness in the case, Officer Tanya Barnes.
An email from the former Pocomoke police officer to Sewell’s attorneys included in a motion to dismiss suggests the investigation into Sewell was in retaliation for alleging his termination was racially motivated.
“Chief Sewell’s firing was illegal, and I think they’re trying to build a case of corruption and use me as the scapegoat,” Barnes wrote in an email.
Barnes’ attorney did not return a call for comment.
Recently, Worcester County Judge Newt Jackson denied a series of defense motions to dismiss the case. Among them, a change of venue, which Sewell’s attorneys argued was warranted because former Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby is currently a circuit court judge where the case is being tried.
In emails released during the first trial, investigators relied upon Oglesby for the 2014 case that eventually ensnared Sewell. Oglesby’s office was initially a defendant in Sewell’s discrimination lawsuit. However, a federal appeals court ruled that the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office had immunity from civil lawsuits.
The ACLU of Maryland has asserted the prosecution of Sewell is unusual. Between 1986 and 2016, the OSP brought only four cases of misconduct against police officers. However, in that same time period the OSP launched over 100 investigations which were dropped.
Last month the city of Pocomoke paid $650,000 to settle discrimination claims made by Sewell and Lt. Lynell Greene. The city also agreed to a consent decree with the plaintiffs to provide training for city employees to prevent discrimination in the future.
The third plaintiff in the civil suit, Frank Savage, has not settled. He alleges he was subject to harassment after he became the first Black member of the all-White Worcester County Drug Task Force.
The complaints outlined a pattern of racism in the unit. They allege officers used the N-word liberally. They took Savage to KKK lane, where a lynching had actually occurred. Members of the unit also left a bloody deer tail on his car and put a faux food stamp with Obama’s picture in his desk.
Sewell’s trial is scheduled for May 14 and 15.
The reporter of this story is the author of “Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore”