Trust Gap: Keith Davis Jr.'s trial raises questions about police credibility

Charles Holden stood in the courtroom a few feet away from Keith Davis Jr., the man charged with pointing a gun at him during an attempted robbery as Holden drove a hack cab in northwest Baltimore last June. He stared intently at Davis seated in front of him; his eyes are bad, so he had to get up from the witness stand to get a good look at the defendant's face.
“To my recollection, that don't look like him to me,” Holden told the court.

Holden gave bumbling testimony prior to that moment, but his inability to identify Davis was a clear, critical blow to the State's Attorney's Office's case. In addition to the robbery of Holden, Davis was charged with assaulting two officers after allegedly pointing a gun at them. The officers had chased Davis from the scene to a nearby auto repair garage, where they fired dozens of shots as Davis allegedly continued to point the gun at them.

Multiple postponements in the case meant Davis spent more than 200 days awaiting a trial, well beyond the Maryland law that stipulates a speedy trial must be held within 180 days.

Though Holden wasn't certain, several of the members of the Baltimore Police Department were sure Davis was the guy. Two testified that, while they were tending to a car accident on the 3900 block of W. Belvedere Ave., Holden pulled up, got out of his car, and said the passenger in his car had a gun on him. They testified they saw the passenger get out of the car and run, and they chased him over multiple blocks, across Reisterstown Road to a garage on Eleanora Avenue, without him ever leaving their sight.

Other officers testified that they heard the two officers relaying their pursuit over the radio and making their way to the scene. Many testified that they saw Davis in the dimly lit garage, standing behind a refrigerator, pointing the gun right, left, and above the appliance. They said that Davis was given orders to drop the weapon multiple times as he continued to point it at them, insisting that they feared for their lives.

In this garage on June 7, 2015, police fired dozens of shots, striking Davis three times, including in the face—the scars of this wound still visible on his right cheek and at the back of his jaw. News reports immediately following the shooting detailed how he called his fiancee, Kelly Holsey, as police continued to fire.

Holsey testified in court that he repeatedly told her “Baby, I'm gonna die” and yelled to the officers “Why are you shooting me?”

Officer Diana Browne testified that, once the shooting ended and she moved in to handcuff the suspect, Davis told her, “You should have killed me, I didn't have any bullets in my gun.” An expert with the department later testified that prints from Davis' right palm and middle finger were found on the handle of the weapon. The clip was indeed empty, according to testimony from one of the department's investigators, with no rounds discharged. But the officers' telling was far from air-tight. There were some holes, and outright contradictions, in their account of what happened in the summer. Since the shooting in June, Holsey, activists, and Davis himself have asserted that police chased the wrong man, that Davis was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So the question facing the jury became one that still lingers over Baltimore and has for decades: Is the Baltimore Police Department to be trusted?

The jurors—six African-American men, three African-American women, two white women, and one white man (who was an alternate for an African-American woman)—didn't seem to think so, even without a counter-narrative as to how Davis might have encountered police if he was not in the car with Holden. They acquitted Davis on 15 of 16 charges, including the most serious counts, ranging from first to second degree assault on two Baltimore Police officers and the hack cab driver and attempted armed robbery.

However, they did convict him on a count of firearm possession with a felony conviction, a charge stemming from a separate case filed on Dec. 3, nearly five months after the first 15 were brought. Somewhat paradoxically, one of the 15 acquittals was for a possession charge of “handgun on person: carry/wear.” The jury seemed to believe the forensic evidence that Davis, at some point, possessed the gun with his prints on it, but questioned the credibility of just about everything else presented, including, apparently, the idea he had a gun on him at the time of the incident. Davis faces a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for April 20.

How did the case go so wrong for the state? Assistant State's Attorney LaZette Ringgold-Kirksey recovered from the early Holden setback and paraded a series of police officers and officials who each supported the basic facts of what happened.

But differences in these testimonies raised significant questions. For example, two officers claimed to be the one who cuffed Davis.

The first three officers who arrived at the garage, officers Lane Eskins and Catherine Filippou and Sgt. Alfredo Santiago, had critical divergences in their stories. Eskins testified he arrived first, took two steps in and saw Davis pointing the gun, and backed out to take a tactical position as Santiago grabbed a shield. Santiago testified he arrived first, scanned the scene, saw Davis pointing the gun, and grabbed a shield from his black Chevy Tahoe. Filippou testified Eskins arrived first, then Santiago, but she told the court they did not go into the auto shop and that Santiago immediately went for his ballistic bunker.

There were also differences concerning when a man and woman working at the garage ran out. Santiago said it was immediately as officers stepped into the garage; Filippou said it was “moments” after she arrived on scene. She then went to the passenger's side door of Santiago's Tahoe, opened it, and took cover.

The woman who ran out, Martina Washington, testified during the trial that a bullet shot by a female officer—Filippou was the only female to fire her gun—whizzed right by her face. (She also testified she had been drinking that day.)

In her closing arguments, Ringgold-Kirksey chalked these inconsistencies up to human nature. She created a scenario for the jury: If she ran into the courtroom, pointed a gun at them, and then ran out, the jurors would have different descriptions of what she was wearing. But they would all remember having a gun aimed in their direction.

But there were bigger problems about the handling of this case, which, if nothing else, speak to issues facing the Baltimore Police Department and State's Attorney's Office. Several officers testified they did not give statements on the Davis shooting until six months after the incident—this, despite the current debate raging in Annapolis over the 10-day rule, part of Maryland's Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights that gives officers 10 days to get legal representation before they are questioned about any wrongdoing. Many activists and legislators believe the time-lapse should be shortened so that officers give a more immediate statement.

Similarly, the shooting officers did not contribute to firearms discharge reports until January. In November, the State's Attorney's Office sent letters to these officers saying they would not face any charges. Eskins testified he never spoke with anyone from the State's Attorney's Office before receiving the letter.

As the jury deliberated, Holsey told reporters she received a grand jury subpoena on State's Attorney letterhead moments before she was to take the stand. She told a reporter from Fox 45 that she felt this was witness intimidation. It's not immediately clear what the grand jury is investigating; Holsey has no idea what case she is being called to testify in and the letter didn't specify.

During her closing arguments, defense attorney Latoya Francis-Williams seemed incredulous about the Baltimore Police Department's long delay in investigating the Davis shooting, alluding to the death of Freddie Gray without saying it explicitly. In this day in Baltimore City, she asked the jury, how is it that they didn't have to answer questions until just before the trial?

“Does that sound right to you?”

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