By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO
Despite efforts by prosecutors to elicit jail time for Pocomoke’s first black police chief Kelvin Sewell, a Worcester County Judge ruled that the former Baltimore Homicide Supervisors would serve probation for a misdemeanor misconduct conviction tied to a 2014 accident investigation.
Prior to sentencing by Judge Newton Jackson III supporters of Sewell filled the courtroom and made impassioned pleas on his behalf, according to several attendees who spoke the AFRO.
“I’m just glad people showed up today,” Pocomoke Pastor Ronnie White said. “I think the judge actually listened to what we had to say.”
Sewell was convicted of misconduct in office by a nearly all white jury in April 2019. The charges stem from a 2014 accident involving two parked cars. State Prosecutor Emmitt Davitt sought a six-month sentence for Sewell.
But the investigation itself has been controversial, with Sewell’s attorneys arguing the probe occurred after Sewell was fired by the Pocomoke City council amid allegations of racism.
The accident occurred in May 2014 when Pocomoke resident Doug Matthews hit two parked cars driving home from a meeting of an African-American chapter of the Masons.
He testified he momentarily fell asleep at the wheel. The impact caused his front tire to come off, but Matthews continued driving three blocks home and called police.
Insurance covered the damage. And there was no bodily injury from the crash. But investigators zeroed in on the decision not to charge Matthews as part of a criminal conspiracy.
The key to the prosecution case was another Pocomoke City officer named Tanya Barnes. She told the jury Sewell’s behavior that night was unusual.
However, during pretrial motions Sewell’s defense tried to introduce emails sent to his civil attorneys by Barnes claiming that the criminal investigation was suspect.
“Chief Sewell’s firing was illegal, and I think they’re trying to build a case of corruption and use me as the scapegoat,” Barnes wrote in an email.
The judge did not allow the email to be introduced.
The sentence is the second time Sewell has faced a Worcester County judge after being convicted. The original 2016 conviction was overturned by the Court of Special Appeals after they ruled, he did not receive a fair trial.
But the most recent iteration provoked a strong reaction from Sewell supporters, who said his signature style of community policing transformed the town and thus the ongoing prosecution was unwarranted.
“I started crying,” Michelle Lucas, a former Pocomoke resident told the AFRO. “I was so scared he was going to go to jail for something he didn’t do.”
For Lucas, watching the trial during which almost all defense motions were denied has shaken her trust in criminal justice system.
“Not only has this rocked my whole faith in law enforcement, but it rocked my faith in the justice system too.”
Looming over the sentencing was the continued fallout over Sewell’s 2015 termination.
The council was silent about the reason. But Sewell recently settled with city officials for $450,000 and commitment to a consent decree to reform racially biased employment practices.
Still, for Pocomoke residents the damage brought by the protracted prosecutions has inflicted deep collateral damage. A town that has not been safe, nor hospitable since his termination.
“I told the judge chief did everything by the book. He was always a man who was committed to the law. He spent a lot time out in our community,” White said.
“And now that he’s gone community policing has just stopped.”