Demonstrators gathered at the Baltimore County Court Building complex on July 2 to protest charges filed in the strangulation death of Christopher Brown, 17, who was killed June 13 in an altercation with an off-duty police officer.
Prosecutors announced June 27 that they had charged James David Laboard, 32, a nine-year veteran of the Baltimore County Police Department, with manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter in the slaying of Christopher, who was strangled after Laboard chased down a group of youths whom he believed had damaged his door. Laboard is accused of accosting Christopher after chasing the youths for four blocks.
Roughly 50 close friends, family and concerned citizens showed up to say they believe the charges should have included second degree murder, which carries a stiffer penalty. They also were angry that Laboard was able to walk free on the very day he was charged without posting a penny of bail.
"The law applies to everyone, including law enforcement,” said Russell Neverdon, the attorney for the dead youth’s mother, Chris Brown, at the July 2 demonstration. “If this had been a case with a private citizen, this man would have been charged with second-degree murder, if not first-degree murder.”
Neverdon is pushing for the charge with a heavier penalty.
Although manslaughter is in the same category as murder, he said, “It’s the bottom of the rung.” Authorities said they charged Laboard with the lesser offenses because there is no proof that he intended to kill Christopher.
"In a county that statistically elects to pursue the death penalty more than any other, this officer has been allowed to give the death penalty himself on the street,” said Tony Garcia, co-counsel with Neverdon. “When you choke someone you are looking into their eyes as their life leaves their body. That’s deliberation, that's cruelty, that's intent.”
Laboard’s charges are felonies that could land Laboard in prison for up to a decade if he is convicted, Neverdon said. He added that at any time the state’s attorney’s office could amend the charges to include second-degree murder if additional evidence is found.
Laboard, who is Black, is currently on leave from the Woodlawn Precinct. County police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said that once the homicide investigation is completed, an internal affairs investigation will begin.
“Without question, this is a tragic event,” said Shaun Owens, Laboard’s attorney, in a statement. “It is important for the community to bear in mind that tragedy does not require blame.”
“Officer James Laboard acted in full accordance with his rights and responsibilities under the law,” he later said. He offered condolences to the Brown family.
According to authorities, Laboard encountered Brown on the night of June 13 shortly before 10:30 p.m. Chris Brown, mother of the teen, said one member of the group walking with her son in their Randallstown neighborhood told her he threw a rock at Laboard’s door.
Neverdon believes that because Christopher had on a leg brace to help with a meniscus tear, he was unable to run as fast as the others when the group scattered.
“I am so tired of African American youth, and specifically African American men, being taken down in the streets by people who are charged to protect and serve,” said the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of Baltimore’s chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). “It is open season on African American men in this town. We need to send a clear and distinct message that we will not tolerate it.”
Witherspoon led the protesters as they marched around the block that houses the county lockup, state’s attorney’s office and court facility. They shouted, “No justice, no peace!” and “Justice for Christopher Brown NOW!”
Attendees donned white tee shirts and head wraps with the teen’s picture, and carried signs that read “STOP the WAR on African-American Youth!”
“My today could be your tomorrow,” said Christen Brown, 24, recalling the shock she felt when she learned that her brother’s death would be a manslaughter case. “I really feel like the message we’re sending out to the kids is that we don’t care about them and the cops can do whatever they want.”
Last week family and friends expressed anger over a 10-day grace period authorities gave Laboard before charges were announced. Neverdon said all police officers allegedly involved in a crime are given the grace period to seek legal counsel.
Though Armacost denies knowledge of the 10-day grace period, Neverdon said it was put in place by police unions to protect officers from making statements that might implicate them without seeking counsel.
“Once, again, I want to assure everyone that this case was treated as any other case of this type would have been,” said Scott Shellenberger, state’s attorney, in a statement. “The fact that Mr. Laboard was an off-duty police officer had no bearing on the time that it took to evaluate the evidence and move this case forward to the grand jury.”
A trial date will be set within the next two months when Laboard is arraigned. As the case progresses, Chris Brown said she wants the case to be taken out of the hands of county authorities, whom she believes will continue to show Laboard favor.