Former Denton cop found guilty of misconduct and malfeasance in office

Former Denton Police Dept. officer Eric Hall was found guilty of misconduct in office during a jury trial in the Caroline County Circuit Court.

DENTON — After two hours of deliberation, a jury found a former Denton Police Department officer guilty of misconduct and malfeasance in office Thursday following a two-day trial in the Caroline County Circuit Court.

The two guilty charges were handed down to Hall on Oct. 7 after the 12-member jury concurred that the state proved that Hall had corruptly failed to do his duties and committed an unlawful act while acting in his official capacity as a police officer. Hall, who had been with the Denton Police Department since 2008, was originally indicted on four charges in August 2020: misconduct and malfeasance in office, altering physical evidence, and obstructing and hindering a police officer.

The charges stemmed from a July 2020 incident in which Hall was accused of mishandling evidence by allowing someone other than a police officer to search a victim’s body for items and handing items from the body to civilians standing nearby. Although it wasn’t known to any of the responding officers initially, the call later turned out to be a homicide investigation, further magnifying the importance of proper evidence collection from a crime scene.

In his opening statement, Caroline County Deputy State’s Attorney Zachary Reid encapsulated his main argument by stating that an officer just handing away property to civilians is not an error or mistake — it’s a crime.

In contrast, Hall’s defense attorney Andrew MacDonald asked the jurors to consider the chaotic, hostile and emotional environment that Hall responded to, along with asking them to focus on humanity and how Hall had to make spontaneous judgment calls while a human life was barely hanging on.

To support his case, Reid brought in numerous police officers as witnesses to repeatedly assert to the jurors that Hall’s actions that day were inappropriate and that he failed to correctly handle and process evidence.

The incident was first set in motion when Denton police officers responded to the intersection of Fourth and High streets for a reported assault in the early evening of July 1, 2020. Officers found the victim, James Wilmer, lying in the street unconscious with a head injury and intermittently breathing.

Cpl. Charity Peris and Pfc. Christopher McMullen, the first two DPD officers who arrived at the scene, began providing emergency medical care to Wilmer. Hall, the third officer to arrive, was tasked both with controlling the emotional crowd swarming Wilmer and searching Wimer’s body at the request of Peris. Officers later found that Wilmer was suffering from a gunshot wound to the head, and he died that evening. A homicide investigation began shortly after.

During the incident, Hall was wearing an activated body camera, which captured his search of Wilmer. The footage, viewed in the courtroom during the trial, first showed Hall arriving at the scene and attempting to control the loud crowd by backing them away from Peris and McMullen, who were working on Wilmer. Peris could be heard asking Hall to do “a quick search” of Wilmer.

The camera then showed a woman in red — later identified as Nicole Veale, a friend of Wilmer — kneeling next to Wilmer’s body, visibly upset and crying out. The video showed Hall handing Veale what appeared to be a crumpled $20 bill pulled from Wilmer’s pocket, which he did not examine.

Further review of the footage showed Veale’s right hand removing a lanyard with a lighter and a folding orange camouflage pocket knife from Wilmer’s clothes. Veale could also be observed searching Wilmer’s socks and pulling out something wrapped in plastic from one of the socks, which she placed on her own body. After Wilmer was loaded into an ambulance, several grams of a controlled dangerous substance — later identified as heroin — were located by Peris in a baggie in his shorts.

An investigation into Hall’s actions on July 1 began soon after the incident. Det. Sgt. Jamie Secrist of DPD’s Criminal Investigation Division testified during the trial that she was reviewing Hall’s body camera footage from the Wilmer shooting when she observed Hall appearing to tamper with the evidence. She then notified the chief of the department and Lt. Donald Baker with the Caroline County Sheriff’s Office about her finding.

From there, Hall’s body camera footage was viewed by Maryland State Police Cpl. Scott Sears of the Homicide Unit. Secrist had previously turned over the baggie of CDS to the state police for testing. At the trial, Sears said the substance tested positive for heroin. Sears also testified that he saw Hall removing Wilmer’s property from his pockets in the body camera footage — an action he found problematic because evidence from the victim’s body could potentially play a big role in the murder investigation.

The investigation into Hall’s actions deepened after Baker, a 20-year veteran of the force, viewed the body camera footage. Prior to Baker viewing the video, he initially thought it would be an internal department investigation for a violation of policies and procedures. However, after viewing, Baker concluded it was a criminal investigation due to the mishandling of evidence.

During the trial, Baker testified that Wilmer’s body was a crime scene and allowing items from the scene to be given to civilians instead of officers was a criminal act. He added that everything should have been collected from Wilmer’s body.

Later, Baker did recover some of the items Veale took from Wilmer, including the crumpled $20 bill — later revealed to be prop money with ‘I love you’ and Wilmer’s death date written on it — and the unaltered lanyard with the lighter and orange knife. However, Veale did not give Baker anything she had found and pulled from Wilmer’s socks.

On July 7, 2020, Baker interviewed Hall regarding his body camera footage and actions during the incident. A recording of the interview was playing in the courtroom during the trial, in which Hall could be heard explaining himself as having “poor situational awareness” multiple times and apologizing for it.

“I believe by his actions that his motive was corrupt,” Baker said during the trial.

The state also called Det. Nathaniel Passwaters of the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office to testify as an expert witness in CDS identification and investigation.

Passwaters told the court that in his 17 years doing drug enforcement and 28 years as a police officer, he’s found CDS in socks, and it’s always in plastic baggies, he said. He also said that in Hall’s body camera footage, he saw Veale quickly put the small plastic item from Wilmer’s left sock into her waistband and felt comfortable saying that the item was most likely CDS.

Taking the totality of the circumstances, his police training and his knowledge of CDS packaging methods, Passwaters told the court that he thought the item was CDS. He added that the packaging was common and a police officer should know what CDS in plastic looks like.

In his closing argument, Reid asserted that it was “very clear” that this was not a mistake, and that even a police academy recruit would know that what Hall did was wrong. He pointed out that every officer who testified said that items from Wilmer’s body were evidence and were not to be taken away. Based on the testimony and body camera videos, it was clear that this was a serious mistake, Reid said.

MacDonald closed by emphasizing that Hall was focused on protecting human life and scene security at the time, not evidence collection. He pointed out that from the body camera footage, it was clear that people surrounding Wilmer were angry and emotional, and that the situation took place in a dangerous neighborhood.

However, he acknowledged that Hall made mistakes in his judgment, but realized that he could have done better in the situation.

“A mistake is not corruption, a mistake is not misconduct in office,” he said.

MacDonald also commented on the fact that all officers responding to the scene, not just Hall, were responsible for securing evidence. He asked the jury to not fault Hall for something others were responsible for, to not let Hall take the fall for everyone. There was no corrupt motive, he said.

Following counsel’s closing arguments, the jury took two hours to decide that Hall was guilty of misconduct and malfeasance in office, and not guilty of altering physical evidence or obstructing and hindering a police officer.

MacDonald and Hall gave no comment on the jury’s verdict.

Reid requested that Hall be placed into custody at the Caroline County Detention Center until sentencing. MacDonald argued against the request, stating that Hall lives in Salisbury and is not a flight risk or threat to public safety. Presiding Judge Philip T. Caroom denied the request to place Hall into custody.

Because the two guilty charges are common law offenses, there is no specific penalty written in state law and a judge can impose any sentence they believe is fair and reasonable. A sentencing hearing is set for Dec. 3.

Following the trial, Reid told The Star Democrat that he believed the verdict to be fair for both the state and Hall, commenting that the jury was thoughtful in their consideration and deliberated for a decent amount of time.

“The entire event is unfortunate,” he said.

Natalie Jones is a reporter at The Star Democrat in Easton covering crime, health, education and Talbot County Council. You can reach her with questions, comments or tips at njones@chespub.com.

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