Laboard manslaughter charges appropriate, lawyers say
Little evidence made public to show intent in death of Christopher Brown
Baltimore County Police photograph of Officer James Laboard, arrested in the Christopher Brown case. (June 27, 2012)
But as authorities considered charges in the ensuing death of Christopher Brown, they had to try to discern Laboard's intentions.
Laboard was charged with two counts of manslaughter — one involuntary — in the asphyxiation death of the Randallstown High School teen; either count could carry a 10-year sentence.
The victim's mother expressed outrage that the officer isn't facing more severe charges, alleging that the officer received preferential treatment and calling for an outside investigation. But several legal experts said the manslaughter charges may be the strongest possible, given what's known about the case.
The difference between manslaughter and murder charges centers on whether a suspect intended to kill. Experts pointed out that according to the information that has been made public, there appear to be few witnesses and little evidence to provide insight into Laboard's intent on June 13.
Laboard cannot be convicted of both charges against him. The difference between the two types of manslaughter has to do with degrees of responsibility for a killing.
It was "an appropriate charge," said Baltimore defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit. First-degree murder was not a likely option, Pettit said, because that would require prosecutors to show the killing was premeditated. Police have said there is no indication that the officer's house was targeted or that Laboard and Brown knew each other.
A second-degree murder charge would require that the prosecution show the officer had intent — "that state of mind" to kill Brown when he pursued the teens, Pettit said.
"It probably would have been a stretch for them to prove that, unless a witness said the victim was rendered defenseless and [Laboard] applied the chokehold," he said. "That's kind of a leap that a jury would have to make."
Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger pointed out Wednesday that the grand jury that handed up the indictment was made up of county residents and that neither public pressure nor Laboard's job as an officer affected the charges. He and other officials said repeatedly that the investigation had been fair and thorough.
Brown's mother, Chris Brown, had hoped to see a charge of second-degree murder included so that a jury could decide whether that or the lesser charge of manslaughter was most appropriate, said the family's lawyer, Russell Neverdon.
"This was a person who was enraged," Neverdon said of Laboard. He said he believes intent could be proved in court, given the allegations that the officer gave chase. He said police officers should be trained on how to safely subdue a person.
James Rhodes, who represented Gahiji Tshamba, a Baltimore officer convicted of fatally shooting an unarmed Marine during a dispute outside a bar, agreed.
Juries are told during instruction "that intent can be informed in a second. I don't understand why they didn't include a murder charge."
Tshamba originally faced first-degree murder charges but was convicted of manslaughter and a handgun violation in the shooting death outside a Mount Vernon night club in 2010.
Defense Attorney Brian G. Thompson said a second-degree murder charge would be possible if prosecutors could show that Laboard displayed malice, but given the facts known to the public, it would be difficult.
"We just don't know that much. We don't know anything about the struggle," he said, adding that it's unclear whether the officer jumped on Brown, rendering him defenseless, or whether he was defending himself against the teen.
Even if the officer "went beyond the scope of his authority, and he used more force than was necessary," Thompson said the prosecution would still have to show that he meant to kill to get a second-degree murder conviction.
"Of course there was an intent to confront this boy," he said, "but the issue is for the state to prove second-degree murder that his intent was to kill this boy."
With involuntary manslaughter, "basically they are saying that defendant acted in a grossly negligent manner. They are saying he was aware of the risks," said Adam Sean Cohen, who also represented Tshamba.
Intent can be a factor in manslaughter cases in which "it wasn't murder because of other reasons, such as partial self-defense," he said.
He said the fact that Laboard was released on his own recognizance "caught my attention."
Neverdon has said the fact that Laboard did not have to post bail and was released added insult to injury.
"I would think some bail would have been more in order," Pettit said. But he added that bail is weighed against whether the defendant is a flight risk, and "he's been living in the community for nine years." Another factor is whether the person is considered a danger to the community, but Laboard, he said, had "no priors of excessive force."