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Trial opens in civil suit over murder by police officer

Trial opened yesterday in the $35 million wrongful death/survivor action against a former Baltimore City police officer, filed by the family of the man he gunned down outside the victim’s Northeast Baltimore home in March 2001.

Rodney Price, 36, a 13-year veteran of the city police department, was sentenced in April 2002 to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 50 years for the first degree murder of Tristin D. Little Sr., 28, an acquaintance of his wife.

Dominic R. Iamele, a lawyer representing Tristin D. Little Jr., opened his statement with the epitaph from a great tomb in Europe – His life: too short for his friends.

The life of Tristin Little Sr. was too short for his friends, too short for his family, and too short for his lovely children – forever, Iamele said. That’s what this case is about: The concept of death being a forever thing.

Both Iamele and A. Dwight Pettit, a lawyer representing Little’s mother and daughter, focused their brief opening statements on the issue of damages.

Prior to trial, the court granted the plaintiffs summary judgment on the issues of liability as a matter of law and whether Price acted within his capacity as an officer when he used deadly force.

What remains for the jury to determine is the issue of damages: compensatory damages as to the wrongful death action of Little’s mother, Emma Pearl Brown, and his two children, Tristin D. Little Jr., 11, and Britney J. Ross, 13, as well as to his estate in the survivorship action.

The main issue in this case is how much, said Pettit, calling the beauty of the system the fact that a jury determines damages.

Furthermore, if plaintiffs’ counsel can prove that Price acted with malice or ill will, the jury will be asked also to consider awarding punitive damages.

Price’s lawyer, Troy A. Priest, admitted that his client killed Mr. Little, was incarcerated for that murder and is not here with us in court and that Little’s family are clearly all very fine people. But he reminded jurors that the case involves several tragedies.

One of those tragedies was that Price was in fear for his safety when he shot Little, thus within his police powers to employ deadly force, Priest said, adding that there was not sufficient evidence to support a finding for punitive damages.

You will see what justice will require and you will render a fair verdict, he said.

Price, now serving his sentence in Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, is not expected to be present in the courtroom.

The shooting occurred on an evening in March 2001 when Price went to Little’s home in the 5400 block of Cedonia Road and found Little and his wife, Charice Lynn Price, talking outside.

Priest began to insinuate in his opening argument that Little was having an affair with Charice Price, but no further reference was made to any such liaison after a bench conference.

Little’s brother, Melvin Brown, 43, sitting in the gallery, told a reporter yesterday that Little was engaged to another woman at the time and listened to Ms. Price’s marital problems as a friend.

Court records say Price told Little, Didn’t I tell you not to mess with my wife? seconds before shooting him 21 times in the head and body.

Neighbor Lawrence Huettner testified yesterday that on the night of the incident, he had been watching television when a burst of 10 to 12 gunshots made him jump to his feet and go to his porch, where he saw a large man standing above a man lying on the ground, then heard another series of shots, but actually had seen nothing.

Testimony continued after press time yesterday. Evidence and argument could wrap up as soon as this afternoon, counsel said.

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