Pocomoke City, MD – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland today celebrated a Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruling overturning the wrongful conviction of Kelvin Sewell, the first Black police chief in Pocomoke City on the Eastern Shore, who challenged racial harassment and then became the target of retaliation and ultimately prosecution.
“I am extremely grateful to the appeals court for taking such care in considering my case and for safeguarding my right to a fair trial,” said Mr. Kelvin Sewell. “It renews the faith I have always had in our justice system.”
“We are thankful that the justice system is working in this case,” said Rev. Ronnie White of Citizens for a Better Pocomoke. “We’re hoping and praying that we’ll have our police chief back in Pocomoke."
Kelvin Sewell, the popular and respected first Black police chief in Pocomoke City, brought true community policing, and a dramatic drop in crime. He became the face of accountable policing in the small Eastern Shore town. Yet when Mr. Sewell defended Black officers on his staff who filed serious complaints of racial harassment, he along with the other Black officers became targets of retaliation.
“It’s extremely heartening to finally see some justice for Chief Kelvin Sewell, a whistleblower who exposed a culture of racial harassment in Worcester County,” said Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland. “The ACLU has long believed that the state should be defending, not prosecuting Chief Sewell.”
After the retaliation began, Chief Sewell, Lt. Lynell Green and Detective Frank Savage filed formal charges of racial discrimination and retaliation against officials from Pocomoke City, Worcester County and the State – charges later endorsed and joined by the U.S. Department of Justice. Pocomoke officials responded by firing Mr. Sewell and Det. Savage, and they joined with Worcester County officials to call in the State Prosecutor’s office, urging prosecutors to investigate outrageously false and offensive rumors about the three officers.
In 2016, with the help of the ACLU and Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the three officers filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Baltimore, challenging the discrimination and retaliation they suffered. Six months after the lawsuit was filed, the State Prosecutor lodged charges against Mr. Sewell and Mr. Green related to the handling of a 2014 fender-bender involving a driver and two parked cars, in which no injuries occurred and all property damages were paid by insurance.
It was on these charges that Chief Sewell stood trial in December 2016, before a nearly all-white Worcester County jury. He won acquittal on a conspiracy charge but suffered wrongful conviction on a count of misconduct. In its ruling today, the appeals court found that the trial court wrongfully denied testimony from Mr. Sewell’s two expert witnesses, which calls into question whether he received a fair trial.
The Court noted: “The right to a fair trial is enshrined in our laws. Under the circumstances presented in this case, the risk of unfairness is intolerably high”. The Court reversed the conviction, and remanded for a new trial, if prosecutors choose to proceed. One judge, Daniel Friedman, would have barred even that, holding that the State’s evidence in the case was so inadequate that it should never have even gone to the jury.
"We're extremely grateful for the appeals court decision, which recognized that Chief Sewell was not afforded a fair trial at the lower court, and we remain committed to vigorously defending him,” said Lloyd Liu, an attorney with Coburn & Greenbaum PLLC who represents Mr. Sewell in the criminal trial.
Find the ruling at the Court of Special Appeals website: https://www.courts.state.md.us/data/opinions/cosa/2018/2183s16.pdf
Learn more at the ACLU of Maryland website: https://www.aclu-md.org/en/cases/savage-v-pocomoke-city