Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Washington trial set to begin next week

Former Prince George’s homeland security official faces murder indictment

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The trial of a former county policeman accused of shooting two furniture deliverymen at his Accokeek home starts next week, the latest in a string of high-profile criminal cases involving former county officials.

Keith A. Washington, 46, who served as second-in-command of the county’s homeland security department for two years, is scheduled to appear in court on Monday for trial on charges of second-degree murder, manslaughter, assault, gross negligence and weapons violations for the Jan. 24, 2007, double shooting.

One of the deliverymen, Brandon Clark, 22, died nine days after the shooting without talking to investigators. The second wounded deliveryman, Robert White, is scheduled to testify.

Lawyers say the case will likely come down to which version of the events the jury believes.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Washington’s shooting of the two unarmed men at his house six times was reckless enough to warrant conviction.

‘‘It’s the evidence and the law that made me decide to move forward with this,” State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said. ‘‘It needs to go to a jury to decide.”

Defense lawyers said they plan to argue that Washington acted in self-defense, shooting after the two men allegedly began fighting with him.

‘‘He was under attack by these two men,” said Michael Starr, defense attorney for Washington. ‘‘His wife and his six-year-old daughter were in the house.”

The trial is the latest high-profile case involving a government official in Prince George’s County. Washington, a police officer for more than a decade who has since retired from the force on medical disability, had run unsuccessfully for the County Council just a few months before the shooting.

Potential witnesses at the trial include several of the doctors who treated the two men after the shooting, as well as paramedics who went to the scene that night.

Starr said he did not know whether he would call Washington to testify.

But much of the case rests on White, 37, who may be the only witness to tell jurors what happened inside the house.

In a statement released last year, the deliveryman said Washington was irritated with the two men the moment they stepped into the house.

When the pair went inside to exchange a set of bed rails and disconnect the old set, Washington allegedly told them to get out, White said in his statement.

White said Washington shot the pair as they were going down the stairs to leave after Washington cursed and shoved Clark.

His account will be challenged by defense attorneys, who will likely accuse White of embellishing the incident to avoid jail and win money from the county.

White and the parents of Brandon Clark filed a civil lawsuit Jan. 24 against Washington and Prince George’s County seeking millions in damages.

That lawsuit will likely be used by defense attorneys, along with evidence of White’s past. A judge recently ruled that defense attorneys could use White’s criminal history when they question him on the stand.

According to court papers, White was convicted 12 times in North Carolina between 1993 and 1995 on charges ranging from third-degree burglary to assault. He was also convicted in 2005 on domestic violence charges.

Size may be a factor in the case as well. Washington, who is 5-feet 9-inches tall, was smaller than both Clark — who was nearly a foot taller — and White.

But prosecutors are likely to point out that Washington, despite claims that the men were fighting with him, had no visible injuries from the incident.

Both White and Clark were shot multiple times, including wounds to their legs. In his statement, White has alleged that Washington shot him as he lay bleeding on the floor.

The case is the first of two pending against Washington. He was charged in April after allegedly pulling a gun on a real estate appraiser who knocked on his front door.

It is unclear whether jurors will hear about the later incident. A judge has already ruled that psychiatric records relating to a worker’s compensation complaint Washington filed in the 1990s cannot be used in the trial.

In those records, a psychiatrist noted that Washington had problems with ‘‘impulsivity and generalized fearfulness” when dealing with people in his job as a police officer.

A judge also ruled last month that Clark’s mother, Marilynn Clark, will not be allowed to testify about a conversation the two had in the hospital.

Clark testified before a judge last month that her son shook his head ‘‘no” when she asked if he had hit Washington.

Washington lost his position as deputy director of homeland security shortly after the April incident.

He is the latest county worker to face criminal charges.

Former county schools superintendent Andre J. Hornsby is expected to stand trial a second time in June on charges of wire fraud, mail fraud, and witness tampering for allegedly covering up a deal to receive money for steering school contracts to a former girlfriend.

The trial of former county School Board member Nate Thomas is expected to begin this spring. Thomas is charged with a third-degree sex offense for having an alleged sexual relationship with a 15-year-old male student from Forestville Military Academy.

Thomas was originally scheduled to stand trial in November, but charges were dismissed when prosecutors filed an incorrect address for where the crime was committed.

Observers say the outcome in the Washington trial may weigh on county politics as well. Ivey is considered to be a potential candidate for county executive in 2010.

‘‘There’s no doubt that it will be in his political interest for this to go smoothly,” said Peter Shapiro, director of the Rawlings Center for Public Leadership at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Previous attorneys for Washington had accused officials of railroading Washington over political pressures. Starr said the defense doesn’t plan to make that a part of the trial.

‘‘We’re staying away from all that,” said Starr, who will defend the case with partner Vincent H. Cohen Jr. ‘‘We’re focusing on the fact that Mr. Washington was attacked, inside his home, and acted in self-defense.”

Jury selection will start on Monday morning in Circuit Court in Upper Marlboro.

E-mail Daniel Valentine at dvalentine@gazette.net.