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  December 5, 2016

Guilty Verdict for Pocomoke's 1st Black Police Chief Divides Town as Violence Flares


Residents say repercussions from the fall-out over chief's dismissal continue to affect the small town on Maryland's lower eastern shore
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TAYA GRAHAM: This is Taya Graham reporting for The Real News Network in Pocomoke City, Maryland. I'm standing at Fourth and Market Street, the site of a deadly shooting last night. It's an upswing in crime that coincides with the swift conviction of Kelvin Sewell, Pocomoke City's first black Police Chief, for misconduct in office.

The Worcester County jury took just 30 minutes to deliver a verdict for Pocomoke's first black Police Chief Kelvin Sewell -- guilty of misconduct. It's another twist in the story of the firing of the former Baltimore homicide detective in 2015 by the city council of the small town on Maryland's lower eastern shore. Sewell says it was for refusing to fire two black officers who had filed discrimination complaints against a Worcester County Drug Task Force. But it was a move town leaders insisted had nothing to do with race.

(video clip)

MAN: That he was not terminated for race. He was not terminated for filing EEOC claims. He was not terminated as retaliation.

(end video clip)

TAYA GRAHAM: Since then Sewell has filed a Federal lawsuit alleging discrimination, a court action the US Justice Department has joined. Six months later he was indicted by Maryland Prosecutor, Emmet Davitt for allegedly interfering with an accident investigation. The trial lasted only a day and hinged upon the testimony of two Pocomoke City police officers. Both testified Sewell showed up at an accident scene after city resident Doug Matthews hit two parked cars in June of 2014. Matthews says he fell asleep at the wheel.

But the officers intimated Sewell showed favoritism by not charging Matthews with a hit and run. The defense called only a single witness, Sewell himself, who told the jury the two officers were lying -- that the accident was just that, a mishap in which no one was hurt and the damage was covered by insurance. After the verdict, Davitt who tried the case says he believes justice was served.

(video clip)

EMMET DAVITT: Well, I'm gratified with the verdict. We, my office, has the mandate to look at political corruption, election law and misconduct in office, and that's why we're involved in this case. And we feel whenever it's an abuse of power by a police officer, something needs to be done. People need to be held accountable and so we're very gratified with the verdict.

(end video clip)

TAYA GRAHAM: But supporters of Sewell who attended the proceedings criticized the process. They noted Sewell's expert witness was excluded by the Judge and how he was barred from challenging the credibility of the officers who testified against him.

(video clip)

REPORTER: Well, you saw the evidence. Did you think the evidence added up to corruption?

MAN: No. No, not by any means. Not by any means. Not even over-exercising his authority. And they tried to say that they could not do anything with the corruption. But they felt that he exercised his authority too strongly. But he didn't.

(end video clip)

TAYA GRAHAM: The verdict itself has done little to quell unease in this small town on Maryland's lower eastern shore. In part, because as the case unfolded inside the courtroom, violent crime continues to plague the otherwise quiet town. Two weeks ago, there was a shooting on the corner of Laurel and Fourth Street and then the day of the verdict, a murder in the heart of the town on Market Street -- the fourth killing so far in 2016 after nearly four years of none. We asked City Manager Ernie Crowfoot and the entire City Council for comment. They declined. But it's a rash of violence former resident, Michelle Lucas, says shows how the town has changed since Sewell's departure.

(video clip)

MICHELLE LUCAS: In the four years -- four, what, five years, that he was in Pocomoke, crime went down. Crime went down. Everyone liked that Chief. If he was letting his friends get off on stuff, do you think crime would have went down? It would have gotten worse.

(end video clip)

TAYA GRAHAM: Ironically, Lucas says Prosecutors used one of Sewell's crime-fighting tactics against him. That he was on the job at all hours.

(video clip)

MICHELLE LUCAS: He worked days and nights. You never knew when you were going to see his car there. He worked days and nights. And Chief Sewell himself would be walking. And not in the heights and the upper class, but he would be walking through the projects and through the 'hood.

(end video clip)

TAYA GRAHAM: Davitt argued it was damning that Sewell showed up at the accident scene at midnight. They also said it was a sign of malfeasance that Matthews called Sewell's Lieutenant Lionel Green on his cell instead of Police Headquarters. But Lucas said Sewell usually worked late into the night. And he gave his cell phone out to anyone who asked. It's a difference of perspective which is perhaps why this case has aroused passion in the town, equally split between black and white residents, and raises unanswered questions about the nature of justice and what it means for a community still trying to define it.

This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Worcester County, Maryland. For full disclosure Stephen Janis wrote a book with Kelvin D. Sewell.

END



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