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Johnnie on the Spot

Family of Man Killed by City Cop Hires Cochran Firm

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 7/28/2004

Family members of Dexter Hill, who was killed by a Baltimore City police sergeant on March 17, has hired the firm of renowned attorney Johnnie Cochran to represent them in any legal action they might take against the city.

On July 20, Hill’s parents Ethel and Ruffin Hill, and Shelby Wheeler, his fiancée and the mother of his four children, retained the Cochran Firm’s Washington office to pursue the legal options they may have against the city for Hill’s death. Under Maryland law, since they were not married, Wheeler herself may not have any rights, but she is involved as the guardian of the couple’s four children.

On March 17, Hill was walking near the intersection of Lanvale and Bethel streets in East Baltimore, when he was stopped by three members of the Baltimore Police Department’s Organized Crime Division and ordered to get down on his knees, according to two male witnesses who have talked to homicide detectives investigating the incident. After Hill—who police sources say was unarmed—talked briefly to the officers, both witnesses say Hill declared that he only had about a dollar in his pocket, then rose up and took off running through alleys in the neighborhood. Sgt. Mark Walrath chased Hill. One of the other officers got into a police car and the other ran up and down Bethel Street, apparently trying to figure out where Hill would emerge. One of the male witnesses, who came forward and talked to police after being interviewed by City Paper, and a female witness—who has talked to CP, detectives, and the State’s Attorney’s Office—saw Hill round the corner from Oliver Street back onto Bethel, several blocks south of where he was originally stopped. Both witnesses say several seconds later they saw an officer round the same corner, run to the edge of the sidewalk, yell, “There he is,” and pull his gun’s trigger.

Both witnesses, who have asked to remain anonymous until after they testify to a grand jury, which will decide whether Walrath will face charges for killing Hill, say they ran down the street and saw Hill motionless, bent over at the waist with his chest against his knees, wedged against a very low fence. When the officers realized they were there, they ordered the pair to leave instead of following the normal police procedure of holding the witnesses so they could be interviewed by detectives. Two of the witnesses ran around to an alley where they could watch police, and the male witness—who was slightly ahead of the female witness—told CP he saw the officers move Hill’s body to the other side of the fence, which is where it was seen by other officers who responded to the scene, according to a one paragraph incident report written by a patrol officer from the Eastern District.

“We look for cases where we can make a difference,” says Janell Byrd-Chichester, the Hills’ attorney for the Cochran Firm. “It’s an egregious situation. It looks like an unarmed man was shot and killed from behind.” Byrd-Chichester says right now the law firm is in the early stages of its own investigation of the case. She says the firm agreed to take the case after talking to Wheeler and the Hills and after reading a story in CP that said police investigators were immediately suspicious of the story told by Walrath and the other two officers because their story didn’t match the evidence (“Shot in the Dark,” July 14).

Ethel Hill says she doesn’t care about any money she might get in a lawsuit against the city. “We want to make sure justice be done,” she says. “The money is not as important as finding this man guilty of what he done.”

Sources say that a grand jury investigation of the incident will begin on June 28.

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