POCOMOKE — An embattled former Pocomoke police chief convicted of misconduct in office after allegedly interfering with and glossing over an investigation into a hit-and-run incident will get a new trial, a state appeals court ruled last week.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals last week issued an opinion on an appeal filed by former Pocomoke Police Chief Kelvin Sewell, who was convicted of misconduct in office and terminated in 2016. The misconduct case against Sewell was part of a larger morass of allegations and accusations swirling around the former police chief during the events leading up to his ultimate termination.
Sewell was chief of police in Pocomoke from 2011 to 2015. When two of his subordinates filed complaints of racial discrimination against the town and the department, Sewell was ultimately terminated for not firing the officers. Sewell then filed his own complaints against the town of Pocomoke, the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging he was being discriminated against. For the record, the EEOC later issued a determination there was reasonable cause for Sewell’s complaints.
The issue came to a head in November 2014 when Douglas Matthews, a correctional officer, ran into two parked and unoccupied vehicles in Pocomoke on his way home from a Prince Hall Masonic Lodge meeting. Matthews did not remain at the scene and drove to his home about four blocks away, according to court documents.
Two Pocomoke Police Department officers responded to the scene and began investigating the collision. A short time later, Sewell and one of his lieutenants arrived on the scene in plainclothes and assisted in the investigation. Ultimately, Sewell convinced the subordinate officer handling the call that the collision was merely an accident and that Matthews was not intoxicated. As a result, the incident went in the books as a mere accident and no citations were written.
The Office of the State Prosecutor investigated the incident and concluded there was misconduct in office by Sewell. The state prosecutor concluded Matthews as a fellow lodge member of Sewell and that he essentially arrived on the scene and utilized the authority of his office to essentially sweep the incident under the rug. A Worcester County grand jury later indicted Sewell on misconduct and corrupting charges and he was ultimately convicted by a jury of the former.
Sewell appealed the Circuit Court case to the Court of Special Appeals on several counts. He alleged the investigation by the state prosecutor was in retaliation for his filing of discrimination complaints against the town, the sheriff’s office and the state’s attorney’s office. His appeal also included assertions that his defense team’s expert witness was not allowed to testify. Last week, the Court of Special Appeals ruled favorably on enough of Sewell’s allegations on appeal to warrant a new trial in the case.
“The right to a fair trial in enshrined in our laws,” the opinion reads. “Under the circumstances presented in this case, the risk of unfairness is intolerably high. We remand for a new trial.”
Perhaps most importantly, the appeals court opined the trial court erred in not allowing Sewell’s witness to testify on the discretion afforded chiefs of police.
“At Sewell’s trial, the state carried its burden to adduce sufficient evidence to convict Sewell of official misconduct and, therefore, the court was correct in denying the motion for acquittal,” the opinion reads. “We hold, however, the trial court committed reversible error by precluding Sewell from introducing expert witness testimony in his defense.”
However, the Court of Special Appeals points out the evidence against Sewell suggests there could be a hint of misconduct. For example, the suspect was a fellow lodge member, Sewell did show up late at night in plainclothes to intervene in the case and allegedly pressured his subordinates not to write any citations for the incident.
“The State Prosecutor’s theory of the case was that Sewell undertook several acts- each of which, in a vacuum, would be unexceptional- but taken together under unusual circumstances establish his corrupt intent,” the opinion reads.
Nonetheless, some of the actions of the trial court, including not allowing Sewell’s expert witness to testify, was enough to reverse the outcome at the Circuit Court level and grant a new trial for Sewell, the appeals court ruled.
“The inability to present independent expert testimony on the processes by which a police chief generally exercises his or her discretion left Sewell severely disadvantaged, especially given that officers from the department testified as to their own perceptions of Sewell’s decision,” the opinion reads. “Given that the trial court’s error was one affecting the jury’s ability to assess a witness’s credibility, it was not a harmless error. We will, therefore, grant Sewell a new trial.”