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August 19, 2008 -- Washington Post (DC)

Witnesses Dispute Police Account Of Fatal Prince George's Shooting

By Ruben Castaneda and James Hohmann, Washington Post Staff Writers

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Prince George's County officials assured Latino leaders yesterday that police will fully investigate Saturday's fatal shooting of a Langley Park man by a county police officer, as two witnesses said the off-duty officer beat the unarmed man with a baton before firing a bullet into his torso.

The eyewitness statements contradict earlier accounts provided by police. Initially, police said that Manuel de Jesus Espina reached for Officer Steven Jackson's gun. On Sunday, a media statement said that Jackson feared for his life when Espina, 43, tried to grab the baton. Jackson used pepper spray before shooting Espina, according to the statement.

The incident began when Jackson, a four-year member of the force, tried to arrest Espina on an alcohol violation in the stairwell of an apartment building, police said. Jackson was moonlighting as a security officer and was wearing his police uniform.

Yesterday, Elvia Rivera, 23, and her mother, Maria D. Gamez, 50, provided a dramatically different account. The shooting occurred inside the basement apartment where Rivera lives with other family members in the 8000 block of 14th Avenue in Langley Park. Espina was a friend of the family, and her mother was preparing a meal to celebrate his birthday, Rivera said.

Rivera said she was sleeping on the sofa about 3:30 p.m. when her mother woke her, telling her that someone outside the apartment was beating Espina. Rivera said she went to the front door and looked through the peephole, where she saw a police officer hitting Espina with a baton.

"My mother said, 'Don't open the door,' but I was afraid for Manuel, so I opened the door," Rivera said during an interview conducted in Spanish. Rivera is bilingual.

Both men entered the apartment, and she retreated to the sofa, Rivera said. The officer continued to strike Espina with the baton, she said. "He was hitting him very hard. He was screaming and hitting him. My mother was crying," she said.

Espina did not resist or try to grab the baton, she said. Rivera said she does not think Espina could see. "His eyes were all red, either from pepper spray or from blood," she said.

Rivera said she called 911 on her cellphone. "I was afraid," she said. "What he was doing to Manuel wasn't right. I wanted other officers to come."

Jackson was screaming and Espina was moaning, "Stop, stop," Rivera said. The officer then shot Espina, who fell onto his back, she said.

In a separate interview, Gamez also said that Espina did not resist.

Moments after the shooting, Espina's son, Manuel de Jesus Espina Jacome, 26, climbed into the apartment through the kitchen window, Rivera said.

"He told [Jackson] he'd just killed his father," and the officer cursed at him, Rivera said. The son tried to resuscitate Espina while Jackson talked to someone on his cellphone or police radio, Rivera said.

Espina's son was arrested on charges of second-degree assault and resisting arrest. Defense attorney Thomas C. Mooney said his client "absolutely disputes the police account and looks forward to vindicating himself in court."

Yesterday, a law enforcement source said the shooting victim had one hand handcuffed, indicating he had resisted arrest. Asked about eyewitness accounts, he added, "Is this one squeaky-clean? It doesn't appear to be." He declined to be identified because the investigation is ongoing.

Typically, an investigator with the state's attorney's office is notified when a police officer shoots someone and goes to the scene to observe the investigation. No such notification was made after Espina was shot, said Ramon Korionoff, a spokesman for State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D). The investigator's pager was out of power, but his cellphone was working, Korionoff said.

Jackson has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending an internal police department investigation. Jackson's wife said yesterday he was not available to comment. The prosecutor's office will also investigate the shooting.

Maj. Kevin Davis, commander of District I, where the shooting occurred, met yesterday with Del. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George's) and County Council member William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), as well as representatives of Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group.

"There's a process in place," Davis said after the meeting. "I asked them to be patient."

Ramirez and Campos said they hoped the meeting would be a step toward ensuring that the shooting does not damage the sometimes-difficult relationship between immigrants and the police. They note that some immigrants are afraid to report crimes because they are in the country illegally.

"We're trying to make sure that the community doesn't lose faith in the police and the job they're trying to do," Ramirez said. "We're trying to make sure we don't go backward."

Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Aaron C. Davis and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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