Police shooting lawsuit
1. Did a member of the Baltimore County police Swat team unnecessarily fire a third and fatal bullet into the chest of Noel, who was already wounded, as she lay on the ground, unable to pose any threat?
2. Did county police overdo it by sending in a heavily-armed 16-member SWAT team dressed in camouflage gear, some armed with assault rifles, using a flash grenade and carrying ballistic shields with bright lights, to serve a search warrant on a Dundalk home for drugs?
Terrell N. Roberts III addressed the 10-member jury selected on Monday and set to hear at least two weeks of testimony in a case that will examine what at the time was a routine police shooting. I'll take you through the statements by Roberts and the county attorney defending the officers, letting each tell the tale:
Roberts began by talking about Jan. 21, 2005, which he described as a "cold winter morning" in which, at 4:50 a.m., Cheryl Noel, a 44-year-old "devoted mother and wife was asleep in her bed" and, on a normal day, was to have gotten up shortly to get ready for work at the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, where she was a water technician at the Back Water Treatment Plant. Instead, Roberts told the jury, "She was shot by a police officer who is sworn to protect and serve."
What she didn't know as she slept so soundly in her bed was that "outside her home amassed a SWAT team of about 16 officers" who were about to swarm her home after having conducted an investigation that began when a county officer stopped her 19-year-old son a few weeks earlier and found a single pill of Percocet for which he did not have a prescription. Cops later searched the household trash and found "remnants, traces of marijuana, traces of cocaine." The son, Matthew, had been living downstairs in the basement. (He was convicted of marijuana possession and served 90 days in jail stemming from charges filed after the raid in which his mother was killed).
Roberts described for the jury a high intensity, high-risk home invasion by cops for what he called a minuscule amount of drugs. "The way they entered the house is what this case is all about," he told the jury on Monday. "They did not knock and announce. They took a battering ram, knocked down the front door and stampeded into the home."
He talked about the explosion, a flash grenade, set off outside the house as the cops went in, designed he said to confuse occupants so they don't know who is barging inside. He said it was timed to go off, from a pole set up outside the house and near Noel's second floor bedroom window, just cops who were already inside rushed through the bedroom door. The husband Charles, who was asleep on the bed, sat up, but "before he could say 'What the ...' his door was banged down and he saw two muzzle flashes. He looked over to see his wife beginning to go down."
Roberts said Cheryl Noel, hearing the flash grenade, grabbed her legally-registered handgun and was standing at the foot of her bed, pointing it in a downward manner, when the cops burst through the door; Officer Carlos Artson, seeing the gun, immediately fired two shots, hitting her in the upper right and upper left part of her body. She fell, and the gun came lose from her hands.
Her husband, Charles Noel, complied with officer's demands to put his hands up and said he told his wife, "Put your hands up, babe." She responded, "They shot me in the chest."
Roberts said Artson then yelled three times for her to move away or move her hand away from the gun. Roberts said Charles Noel will testify that his wife posed no threat, that she was incapacitated and could not comply with Artson's demands. He said Artson then fired a third and final shot, downward, into the center of Cheryl Noel's chest. That, Roberts told the jury, "was the kill shot."
Roberts described haphazard training. He pointed out the cops didn't have an arrest warrant, but merely a search warrant, and that the main target was Matthew Noel, Cheryl Noel's 19-year-old son who lived in the basement with his girlfriend and who fully cooperated when different officers yelled down the stairs for him to surrender. Roberts said Cheryl, had she known cops were inside her house, would've done the same given the chance. He said the officers who conducted the raid knew she feared for her life because people had called in death threats in connection with her son -- one threatened to burn the house down -- but that his clients were not dangerous individuals.
He did conceded that Charles Noel had been convicted of second-degree murder 30 years ago stemming from a fight with other teens. He said he left for the army but returned to plead guilty when charges were brought "and he served his time. It's been a matter of shame for him." He now works a waste station at the Fort George G. Meade Army base in Anne Arundel County, and has for the past 13 years. Matthew Noel also had problems -- he had recently shot a man in the foot with a .45 caliber handgun, an incident that Roberts described as fight among teens.
Of Cheryl Noel, Roberts said, "This woman did not have fair warning that the police were entering her house." He said he will put on experts who will tell you what police won't -- that such raids are designed to hide the fact that cops are busting into homes and that the use of flash grenades prove the cops want to cause as much confusion as possible. And when she was shot, "she was not going for the gun. She was incapable of going for the gun."
Of the raid itself, Roberts said: "We're not going after Osama bin Laden. We're not even going after a murderer. This wasn't even an arrest warrant."
County attorney Paul M. Mayhew, who is defending the two sergeants and three officers, stood up and wondered aloud if what his counterpart had just described was more like Nazi Germany than Baltimore County. Of police, he said, "This is not a terrorist organization we're running here. These officers are highly trained and dedicated."
While Roberts described Dundalk as a suburban enclave, Mayhew described it as part and parcel with the city -- same type of housing, same type of problems. Dundalk might as well as be East Baltimore: "We live in a very violent city and a very violent nation and a very violent world, full of guns and drugs, unfortunately."
He described how the investigation unfolded, not a keystone cops type of a thing, but from a simple stop of a car by a patrol officer of 19-year-old Matthew Noel, who was driving on a suspended license. The cop noticed a pill that was Percocet and the young Noel told the officer "he had a pill problem." The case was referred to a federal task force investigating what Mayhew described was formed in "response to a growing prescription drug epidemic." The sergeant, he said, "did what he was supposed to do -- investigate."
Officers searched the Noel's trash outside the house and three separate times found evidence of drugs -- small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, scales for measuring and "the razor blade used for cutting it up." He noted that "drug dealers are business people. They don't throw out their product out in the trash. We always find just a little."
The drugs combined with the scales led police to believe the house was being used to sell drugs, not just occupied by people who used them. He said cops did a background check on the occupants and turned up, yes, the old murder conviction for Charles Noel, but also the shooting case against the son Matthew, that his girlfriend, a nightclub dancer, also was wanted on a warrant and that there was a second handgun registered to a person in the house. They also found mail indicating another man with a long criminal record for burglary, drugs and assault might be living there. The threats Cheryl Noel was worried about were directed at Matthew.
Putting all that information together -- there were guns in the house, it's linked to drugs and occupied by people with violent histories -- the officer "went and got a warrant. That was the Noel's fourth amendment protection." Then Sgt. Robert M. Gibbons had to decide how to go into the house. He said Gibbons had to think of all that they learned, including that another son, who had moved out, had been arrested and charged with selling marijuana "outside the home" by an officer who happened to be on the raid team. That charge was dropped when the suspect "flipped" on "someone else with more drugs," Mayhew told jurors.
In addition, Cheryl Noel, the dedicated mother and worker, had a previous conviction for possessing marijuana and driving under the influence of alcohol. Gibbons, Mayhew told jurors, "didn't think it was remotely safe to send a patrol officer knocking on the door. He knew the house was occupied by a convicted murderer and a man who had just shot another man with a .45." Police officers, he said, are here to "serve and protect" but "that doesn't mean they have to forfeit their right to protect their own lives."
He disputed Charles Noel's statement that his wife never moved toward the gun; he said Artson saw her move her hand toward the weapon and fired. He said the officer showed incredible restraint in stopping after he fired the first two bullets and yelled three times for her to move away from the gun. His partner was still subduing the husband on the bed by training an assault rifle at him, and that "any other officer, any one of you, would've kept shooting" until it was clear Cheryl Noel couldn't move again.
Mayhew told the jury, "We do not apologize one minute" for the shooting. He held up the box containing Cheryl Noel's gun to the jury: "This is a a legally registered handgun. Would you wanted it pointed at you?" ... He noted that county tactical officers have conducted 3,000 "high-risk" raids in the past 30 years and only three times "have they discharged their weapons." He said Charles Noel complied with the officer's demands and wasn't hurt at all.
He said flash grenades are not used to cause confusion but to "momentarily distract" someone as cops go in. He said in this case, officers broke down the door as a single officer shouted, "Police search warrant" over and over again. The flash grenade was set off 4.5 seconds after the door came down, giving what he said was ample warning to the people inside that police were there. He said it can be debated whether 4.5 seconds is enough time for that to register but he said the tactic has worked in most of the other 3,000 raids.
Mayhew said Cheryl Noel kept her fully-loaded gun under her pillow because she was worried about the threats made toward her son, and that she thwarted efforts by the husband to kick the young man out. He said the idea police want to conceal who they are during a raid is not true, in that cops yell who they are as they come through door, have the words "police" emblazoned on their gear and even on their shields. In fact, Charles Noel, according to Mayhem, said during his deposition that he didn't know cops were inside until he was handcuffed and brought downstairs; but his lawyer said in opening statements that he told his wife to put his hands up and that he was blinded by the light coming from the police officer's shields.
Here is a copy of the lawsuit and the police report that lists the items seized from the house: