State’s attorney staff to look at convictions involving officers’ testimony
The Baltimore state’s attorney’s office said it is reviewing convictions in cases that leaned heavily on the word of the seven Baltimore police officers indicted last month on federal racketeering charges.
The announcement came as prosecutors have been dropping pending cases involving the officers, and as defense attorneys across the city have been exploring options for reopening cases where clients were found guilty.
“We recognize that these indictments will have pervasive implications not only on open and pending cases but closed cases as well,” Melba Saunders, spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, said in a statement. “As such, we have already begun to reallocate resources in an attempt to evaluate and assess the magnitude of the impact that these indictments will ultimately have on both.”
Saunders did not elaborate on the potential results of such a review. Some defense attorneys have been reviewing past cases in hopes of getting convictions overturned.
Some defendants charged by the officers with gun or drug crimes entered guilty pleas just weeks before the indictments were unsealed.
Attorney Marc Zayon represented a client who pleaded guilty Feb. 8 to a gun charge and received a suspended sentence and probation. Zayon said his client had asserted that he was wearing a seat belt when three of the officers pulled him over for not wearing a seat belt and allegedly found a gun.
“You have officers with clear credibility issues, but we were not aware at the time the case was set for trial,” Zayon said. He said his client’s constitutional rights were “impacted by the federal government’s decision to keep their investigation secret.”
The public defender’s office has been reviewing its closed cases to determine if it should seek new trials or other “post-conviction relief.” Last week the office posted a form online for anyone seeking to have a case reviewed.
Baltimore’s deputy public defender, Natalie Finegar, said “potentially thousands of cases” could be affected. In addition to her office’s review, about 200 people have contacted the public defender’s office asking for help.
Many of the cases involve guilty pleas, Finegar said, but she said the pleas were “decisions made in the dark.”
The seven officers — Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and detectives Momodu Gondo, Evodio Hendrix, Daniel Hersl, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor and Maurice Ward — are charged with robbing and extorting citizens, filing false affidavits and police reports, and falsifying hours worked for overtime pay. They have pleaded not guilty and are being detained pending trial in U.S. District Court.
The prolific detectives, publicly praised by the Police Department as recently as October, were involved in more than 100 gun cases last year alone. Prosecutors in federal court quietly dismissed five cases involving the officers as the long-term wiretap investigation played out, but the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office was not aware of the probe until it was unsealed and announced.
The morning the indictment was announced, one defendant was weighing a plea offer when a prosecutor received a text message and asked for a delay. The case was dropped.
Warren Brown, a defense attorney representing Detective Gondo, noted that federal prosecutors have not made any accusations about the officers planting evidence as some defendants and their attorneys have claimed.
“I don’t know if we’re cutting off our nose to spite our face by pillorying these officers and making it easy for folks” who may have committed crimes “to get out” of jail, Brown said.
Other attorneys for the officers could not be reached or declined to comment.
Attorney David B. Shapiro said no one is saying “that the defendants are all choir boys or girls. But everybody should play by the rules, and clearly these officers were not.”
Overturning convictions is a difficult process, attorneys say. When defendants plead guilty, they are asked a series of questions designed to make sure they are certain they want to proceed. The questions often include whether the accused is pleading guilty voluntarily, has been promised anything, and is in fact guilty. Those questions also make it harder to undo a plea, attorneys said.
Finegar said defendants may take a deal that accelerates their release from jail, or because they fear a worse outcome if they take a case to trial.
“Our system has become dependent on plea bargains,” Finegar said.
C. Justin Brown, a defense attorney, said the state’s attorney’s office’s willingness to revisit cases could be key to the cases getting a fresh look. Defendants may otherwise need to demonstrate specific violations, instead of pointing to the general pattern of allegations against the officers.
“As much as an outrage as the alleged conduct of the officers may be, it doesn’t translate easily into a post-conviction or motion for new trial,” Brown said.
Shapiro, who ran an ad in the Baltimore Sun seeking to get criminal records changed or win compensation for arrests, said those who outlined their claims to their attorneys or in court will be in the best position for relief. He is representing a man who in 2014 sent a letter to the judge in his case, alleging misconduct by Hersl.
Many defense attorneys say that even before the indictments, prosecutors were trying to prevent other accusations regarding the officers from being mentioned in court. Claiming that prosecutors failed to disclose such information about the officers could be one avenue to getting the cases reopened, attorneys said.
Prosecutors say they’re providing the appropriate disclosures or asking courts for guidance when challenged by defense attorneys.
“I really think the state’s attorney’s office and Baltimore police need to own up to the fact that either they knew or should’ve known that they had seven rogue officers out there,” Shapiro said. “Among the private bench, it was no surprise when these names came up.”
Tyler Mann represented a man who pleaded guilty to a gun charge Nov. 30, when the federal investigation was still ongoing. His client had been in jail for months, and the offer was considered a “fairly good deal,” he said.
“My case came down to questions of credibility,” Mann said. “They say they saw him run, and saw him throw a gun.”
With more information about the officers available, Mann said, “my advice to him certainly would’ve been different.”