RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court wrestled Tuesday over whether Baltimore police officers were justified in killing an unarmed mentally ill black man after his mother called 911 to get medical attention for her son.
Maurice Donald Johnson, who suffered from bipolar disorder, was fatally shot by two Baltimore police officers during a 2012 altercation at his mother’s home, where he was having a mental health episode.
A federal judge last year threw out a lawsuit filed by Johnson’s mother, Marcella Holloman, and ruled that the officers’ use of force was justified because the man was acting violently.
But Stephen Braga, Holloman’s attorney, urged a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to revive the case, saying it highlights problems with Baltimore police that were detailed in a recent Justice Department report.
“My son needs to have his day in court,” Holloman said in an interview after the hearing.
Fred Smalkin Jr., assistant solicitor for the city of Baltimore, said the officers viewed Johnson as a threat, noting that the man had punched and lunged at the officers when they tried to get him to calm down and then pinned one of them to the ground.
“The officers are justified in acting when there is a threat,” Smalkin said.
One of the officers, Paul Markowski, left the Baltimore police department in 2013, a police spokesman said. The other officer involved in the shooting — Gregory Bragg — remains on the force. Both of them are white.
Braga argues that Johnson’s case fits a pattern of excessive use of police force in Baltimore that was brought to light by the Department of Justice report last month. The report said Baltimore police officers routinely discriminate against blacks, are not adequately held accountable for misconduct and use physical force unnecessarily, including against the mentally disabled.
The court did not make a decision in Johnson’s case Tuesday. Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said he was concerned that ruling against the officers in the case would make authorities less inclined to answer 911 calls like Holloman’s when they might be put in danger.
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer .