Surveillance video captures shopping plaza gunfire, helps lead to conviction
Ever since gunfire erupted last summer outside a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant in Montgomery County, officials have struggled to interpret video surveillance recordings of exactly what happened.
We recently obtained copies of videos that were played repeatedly during a trial last week that led to the conviction of Deon E. Sherrod, 30, on attempted manslaughter, assault and other charges.
In the videos, patrons of the Briggs Chaney Shopping Plaza, about five miles north of the Beltway in Silver Spring, can be seen going about their business on a clear Sunday afternoon. Sherrod is wearing light clothing. George E. Bleau, 32, is wearing dark clothing.
You can see the two men fighting at the onset. At the 0:12 time mark, Sherrod can be seen taking aim as Bleau runs away. A different angle, at the 0:51 mark, shows customers ducking for cover.
Bleau was hit with three rounds, one lacerating his liver. Despite this, he can be seen getting into his black sedan. His cousin drove him to the hospital.
Sherrod's attorney, Kevin Collins, conceded during the trial that his client shot Bleau but said he did so because Bleau also had a gun, was a threat to kill, and Sherrod had a legal right to defend himself by shooting.
Collins called Sherrod to the witness stand, who testified that Bleau was armed. Collins also showed jurors two still images, captured by the surveillance cameras, that at first glance seem to show Bleau pointing a weapon at Sherrod.
"The question is, did Mr. Bleau have a gun?" Collins asked during his closing argument. "And the answer to that is 'Yes.'"
Collins said of Bleau: "He's the community thug. No dispute about that. Known to carry weapons. Complete dirtball."
But prosecutors had their response ready.
First, there were the video recordings themselves. Played at real speed, they show Sherrod taking aim at Bleau. There is no such clarity in the case of Bleau and an alleged gun, prosecutors said.
Assistant State's Attorney Kathy Knight also attacked the credibility of the still images.
They were fuzzy enough, she said, that what Collins said was a gun in Bleau's hand could have been an extension of Bleau's arm, a shadow, or even part of Bleau's long dreadlocks.
"How do we know that's not his hair?" Knight asked during her closing argument.
She also had the bulk of witness testimony on her side: No one at the shopping center said they saw a gun in Bleau's hand except Sherrod. Bleau himself testified, and said he didn't have a gun.
The limits of the video recordings were clear from the beginning of the case.
Immediately after the July 26 shooting, before they had a chance to study the video, Montgomery County police said that only one of the men fired a weapon.
Two weeks later, after the investigation had progressed, police said they believed both men fired guns. They charged Sherrod with attempted murder and other counts, and charged Bleau with first-degree assault, use of a firearm and other counts.
In obtaining the charges against Bleau, detectives said they had studied the video images. "Bleau's arm can be seen pointing back at the unknown black male, extended, also apparently holding a handgun," they wrote in charging documents. "It appears that George Emanuel Bleau and the unknown black male [later identified as Sherrod] became engaged in a gun battle at very close range."
When prosecutors started looking at the case, though, they weren't so sure. In late August, they dropped charges against Bleau, citing a lack of evidence. He was released from jail still carrying three bullets inside his body.
Peter S. Fayne, Bleau's attorney, has discussed the case in the past, but was in court on a different matter Tuesday morning and wasn't immediately available to talk.
At the trial, the jury rejected the charge of attempted first-degree murder against Sherrod, instead convicting him of attempted manslaughter, assault, reckless endangerment and firearms counts. An innocent bystander was hit in the calf by one of his bullets.
The verdict reflected the jury's belief that at some point, Sherrod might have felt he was in danger, but it was unreasonable for him to hold this belief throughout the encounter -- particularly when Bleau was running away, according to prosecutors.
Knight said that Sherrod faces up to 105 years in prison, if the judge were to add up prison time in the most favorable light to prosecutors.
Collins, Sherrod's attorney, declined to comment after the verdict.
It has always been a coincidence that the men were so close to the Chuck E. Cheese. They were apparently arguing about a woman. Neither had gone there to eat, according to authorities.
-- Dan Morse
March 30, 2010; 11:41 AM ET
Categories: Crime, Seen , Dan Morse , Montgomery
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