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A Teen With A Toy Was Killed By Police, And Few Want To Talk About It

Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Peyton Ham died on the street where he lived. On April 13, 2021, Ham was killed in Leonardtown, Md., when a police officer fired lots of bullets at and into him. He was 16 years old. It’s a story so sad that you can understand why some folks would want it to just go away. Especially police and public officials in and around the rural Southern Maryland town, located about an hour and a half from Washington, D.C. 

At a press conference held hours after the shooting, the Maryland State Police said that one of their officers had responded to a pair of 911 calls about a male acting "suspicious" on Hollywood Road just down the street from the state police barracks. The officer started shooting at Ham because the kid pointed what looked like a real weapon at him, the cops said, and kept shooting after the teen fell because, according to the officer’s account, the mortally wounded youngster was attempting to pull out a knife. Woodrow Jones, State Police superintendent, told reporters that his agency did not know how many shots were fired or how many shots hit Ham.

Almost immediately after the shooting, state police released a photograph of what the cops said was the knife found on Ham, which had a three-inch blade. The cops also said Ham was otherwise unarmed, and that the officer had mistaken a faux firearm as the real thing. The police only released a stock photo of an airsoft pellet gun they said he pointed at the officer in a menacing manner. (That’s the same non-lethal replica that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing with when he was murdered by Cleveland police in 2014.) It took almost two weeks, and pressure from Ham’s family and other Leonardtown residents, before the state police released the name of the officer, Joseph Azzari. The cops, however, have still never said how many times Azzari, described by superiors as a two-year veteran, fired his weapon or how many bullets hit Ham. 

Police and public officials have released almost no information about the shooting since the day Ham died, and have done seemingly nothing to resolve the questions hanging over the case. They have never said who made the 911 calls that triggered the deadly encounter or released the recordings. No video footage of Ham’s shooting has ever come out; Maryland State Police are not currently required to wear cameras. A week before Ham was killed, state legislators in Annapolis passed a bill, the Maryland Police Accountability Act of 2021, which an omnibus bill that among other things mandates that all state police officers be equipped with body cams by 2023. 

Family and friends of Ham held multiple rallies where attendees wore t-shirts and carried placards adorned with “Justice for Peyton,” hoping to drum up attention to the case. The rallies were attended by NAACP and BLM-affiliated groups, as have others around the country in support of people shot by police regardless of race (Ham was white). But those efforts have had little success spurring the legal authorities to do anything. The lack of video evidence perhaps played a role in how little coverage Ham’s shooting got outside of Leonardtown, and also why the state police and prosecutors in St. Mary’s County have been able to basically act like the killing never happened. 

But local newspapers in Southern Maryland have kept on the story. And in August, following four months of inaction by civil servants, the St. Mary’s County Times reported that they had received an audio recording of Ham’s shooting. The newspaper did not say who it got the recording from, nor did the paper upload it to its website for readers to listen to. But the account written by County Times reporter Guy Leonard makes Ham’s final moments seem as horrendous as his loved ones’ worst nightmares.

Here’s the timeline of the shooting based on information from the audio recording, exactly as published in the County Times:

    • At 1:26:35 p.m. on April 13 the trooper begins firing his service weapon, a Glock 22 .40 caliber pistol, which has a magazine capacity of 15 rounds.
    • At 1:26:39 p.m., the firing has stopped briefly after 10 shots; those shots were fired in five seconds.
    • At 1:26:42 p.m., the recording shows the trooper fired shot number 11 three seconds after the initial salvo. Evidence markers from the scene indicated the officer moved about nine to 12 feet closer to Ham before firing shot number 11.
    • At 1:27:30 p.m., emergency sirens can be heard, 48 seconds after the 11th shot was fired.
    • At 1:27:39 p.m., the officer opens fire again, firing four additional shots at close range, 57 seconds after shot number 11. The gunfire ended at 1:27:42 p.m.

That’s 15 bullets in three volleys over one minute and seven seconds. Again, neither the police nor prosecutors have yet said how many shots hit Ham. In August, Richard Fritz, state’s attorney for St. Mary's County, told the County Times that his office couldn’t complete its investigation because the state had yet to finish an autopsy on Ham. The teen was killed in April. 

The County Times says it gave copies of the recording to the Maryland State Police and state’s attorney. According to a staffer at the paper, neither the cops nor prosecutors have challenged the authenticity of the recording or any of the facts in their Ham stories.   

The story had all the makings of a bombshell, but nobody outside Leonardtown seems to be paying attention. 

“Nobody picked the story up,” a County Times staffer told Defector. “It’s ridiculous.”   

Janice Walthour, an officer with the St. Mary’s County branch of the NAACP and a speaker at the Peyton Ham rallies, also finds the inactivity absurd. 

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Walthour told Defector in August. “I don’t really understand how the government can give out no information.”

The state's attorney told the County Times that he "hopes" to have a final report on the Ham investigation released "in September." Time's almost up.

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