What began as a suspicion that a Baltimore police officer was aiding a drug dealer led to one of the nation’s biggest police corruption scandals. Leo Wise, an assistant U.S Attorney with a long career prosecuting corruption, was at the center of the investigation into the department’s Gun Trace Task Force. This month, he released a book years in the making: “Who Speaks For You,” an inside look at how the investigation unfolded and the challenges he and his colleagues faced along the way.
Wise is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and Harvard Law School, and his trial experience includes delivering justice against the tobacco industry and top executives of Enron, as well as against former mayor Catherine Pugh after the Healthy Holly scandal. Wise won’t see a penny from his book. Federal ethics rules prevent him from profiting, and he has signed away the rights to his work. A Baltimore resident, Wise, 46, took the title of his book from the words spoken by a judge to the jury in the police trial. Judges ask the jury who will speak for the entire panel in rendering a verdict. In the 2018 trial of officers Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor, the only black person on the jury was selected as the foreman. Wise knew at that moment, as the verdict was about to be rendered, that the symbolism of the foreman selection meant that he had won the case that cast fresh light on the divide between Black and White Baltimore. Wise spoke recently with Baltimore Fishbowl via Zoom, and the views he expresses are his alone, and not those of the Justice Department or U.S. government.
Baltimore Fishbowl: There have been lots of accounts of the Gun Trace Task Force, including media accounts and two books. What does this book add to the knowledge of this episode?
Leo Wise: I saw it as an extension of my public service. The case shows that the criminal justice system can and does work in really two important ways: One, that the police can be held accountable.
And two…that no one is above the law; that the police are not above the law….[And] no one is beneath the law, meaning the victims that were preyed upon by the Task Force, people who had criminal records, people who lived in certain neighborhoods, people who lived in and around the border land between the drug economy and the legitimate economy, all of those people deserve to be believed, and were believed ultimately by the jury. And I think the book tells that story.
And I think it tells that story in a different way than the other books. I didn’t want to write a ‘bad cop’ story, not to say that that’s what the other books are. But my primary goal was…to talk about the search for the truth.
And that’s really what my book is about. It’s told not chronologically…and it’s not meant to be a history of the Gun Trace Task Force and its role in the Baltimore Police Department. It’s told from the my perspective, from the perspective of how we discovered what these police officers were were doing.
And the themes are really belief and disbelief…why we believe certain people like police officers and why we don’t believe other people, like people with criminal records or people that have broken the law.
The second thing is that geography is destiny, that so much of our life is determined by where we started, in many ways…In my neighborhood in North Baltimore, I’m on these listservs where people complain…that we need more police presence. And in eastern and West Baltimore, what we learned from victims, it was just the opposite: that the police, particularly the Task Force, was this predatory force, that interactions with the community were terrible. And so the last thing they wanted was to see more of these guys.
And then the third theme, is really how we had to flip the playbook to catch them. These were police officers. They were law enforcement, like our FBI agents, so they knew the techniques, they knew how to stay ahead of them. And that posed enormous challenges for how we actually investigated the case…
And so I think those themes and talking about how we found the truth made the book very different from the other two, which I think are terrific, and terrific in their own ways, and distinct from one another in their own way. I read them both. I didn’t read them before. I didn’t want to plagiarize even non-consciously anything. I was afraid if I read something I liked, you know, a scene that I thought was particularly well written, it would sort of bleed into my memory of it. So I deliberately didn’t read it until my book was finished.
BFB: One thing that struck me reading this book was the very methodical and dispassionate way that building a case, investigating and prosecuting works in terms of things like ‘here’s what you need to get a wiretap’ and ‘here are the standards of evidence that you need to follow.’ Did you consciously want to spell that out? Because I think we’re living in a world right now, where there’s a public feeling that….anybody can get a wiretap for anything, or that prosecutions are very politically driven. So did you approach it with wanting to sort of show an audience the very clear steps that needed to be taken to pursue an investigation like this?
LW: The idea for those came from my editor at the Hopkins press, Matthew McAdam, who calls them ‘New Yorker-style asides.’ It was such an interesting process. I first had to figure out what the story within the story was, which ultimately was that it really was about a search for the truth, not just about bad cops.
And then we figured out that it would be told from my perspective, which was not something we originally thought, and that it would be told in the way in which the truth unfolded, and that there would be a kind of layering.
And I’ve struggled to figure out a good metaphor for that. One that I’ve settled on is – it’s like if you’re sketching something in the distance on a foggy day. You sort of take a first stab at it, and you think it’s a lighthouse. And it turns out it’s a person walking in the distance, and as the fog clears, you see the picture, more and more clearly.
Within the construct, Matt thought it would be interesting to explain, when I talk about a wiretap, for instance…pause and describe how we get one, what the standards are, give examples.
And I like that style. I like hearing writers talk about how they write, I think that’s really interesting. The New York Times will do those in the book review (section) those little pieces where they ask people what they read. And the Paris Review does these interviews with authors, and they’ll often describe the room they write in. So I thought that might be interesting to talk about how as a prosecutor, how I do my job. Obviously, this story is the example of it, but then talk about the nuts and bolts of how we get a wiretap, how we get a search warrant.
BFB: I think it was very effective. And I also think it lends a lot of legitimacy to the process. In that regard, were you limited to only things that you had placed in the public record during trial? Was that a limiting factor in writing this book?
LW: So I am limited in that regard. But the way I built the book was so much of it had become public. We had the full trial transcript because two of the defendants did go to trial. The Baltimore Sun had filed a lawsuit to unseal the search warrant applications and wiretap applications, and we didn’t fight that. We agreed.
Then we had so many guilty pleas, which have factual statements attached to them. So those were more facts. We had sentencings, where you write sentencing memos that have more facts. So there was a lot of material, really. All the material I felt I needed was public.
And then what I did, to adhere to the rule that I only use information that is public, is I read and took notes on all of that material, and then only wrote what I could source back to it. So I didn’t look at my own (investigative) notes….I certainly didn’t look at anything that was secret, like Grand Jury transcripts, or FBI interview notes, which aren’t technically secret, but are not public. And I didn’t rely on my memory for really anything substantive. I mean, some of the atmosphere, it’s like, what the room looked like, or that the table squeaks. I mean, that stuff was from memory,
That was also helpful because… it’s funny how memory works. Sometimes you can remember something clear as a bell and then it turns out to be wrong. So it was helpful to have the rigor of saying I can source back when I’m writing to a transcript or a wiretap application or something.
The trial transcripts allowed me to use precise language, which I thought was really interesting, because it’s one thing for me to kind of summarize what someone’s saying, but I really, as a reader, like dialogue. And I really like transcripts. I like reading plays. So I thought that would be interesting for the reader to see, not only what they said, but how they actually said it.
BFB: What you’re describing is a pretty time-consuming process. How long did it take you to produce this?
LW: The trial ended in the winter of 2018, and I started thinking that it would be interesting to write a book about it. My first trial as a prosecutor, which I described a little bit in the book, was the U.S. government’s civil racketeering case against the tobacco industry. And I thought that would be an interesting book. The second trial I did was against the CEO of Enron, and I thought there would be something interesting there. I just didn’t have the time. I sort of rolled from one case to another. It was really the pandemic that closed the courts…I was still working full time, but I wasn’t working at night and on the weekends, so I just used that time.
I knew nothing about writing a book. It took a while to come up with the proposal where I laid out the story within the story, and what the themes were. And I connected with a writer named Lawrence Lanahan, who was terrific. We would meet, and it was Lawrence who helped me figure out the story within the story. It took a year of trying to write proposal after proposal, and Matt McAdam, my editor, would say ‘This doesn’t quite get there. Let’s try again.’ That went on for a year. And then Lawrence got involved. And then I worked with him for about a year. And then it was really a year of writing and then a year of editing.
BFB: Are you literally getting no money for this? If a law school professor decides to assign this for a class, or you teach a class, do the proceeds go to a foundation or something?
LW: I signed over all the rights; Johns Hopkins University Press owns the whole thing. They sold it for an audiobook, and I don’t get any of that.
BFB: Are you going to read the audiobook?
LW: They let me pick the actor that did it. It’s out and it was released the same day as the book. But they gave me three choices. Apparently, authors all want to do it themselves. And none of them ever get to because they have to audition and their voices are [not as good.] They just got these three actors. I played (the audio of them) for my wife and for my kids. I said, ‘Which voice Do you like?’ And I’m not sure we all settled on the one I picked.
BFB: You touch on this in the book about the Black Butterfly in east and west Baltimore and the ‘White L.’ And you’ve said it, you live in North Baltimore and you’re a White L guy, and not a Black Butterfly guy. But now you’ve been immersed. And your perspective has changed about how geography is destiny. Have you given any thought to how we, as a broader city and region, break down the barrier between the White L and the Black Butterfly?
LW: It’s a great question. I mean, that’s part of why I wrote the book, because I wanted to do that. I use that example of Herbert Tate having cash in his pocket, right. And people that I interact with in my neighborhood, in professional circles — the idea of not having a bank account is like going to Mars.
One of the ways to kind of get to a broader understanding of people’s experiences is what I described as the journey I went on through the book. Because of what I do, I was exposed to it. I think, you know, lots of people in the professional kind of world I’m in and in my neighborhood may not have an opportunity to do that themselves. But I hope that through the book, they can see what I saw and come to a better understanding of the city. They live in the region, (and they can see) the way that people experience the police differently.
BFB: You’ve been a public corruption prosecutor in Maryland for more than a decade. And besides the Gun Trace Task Force, you were involved with former Mayor Catherine Pugh and the Healthy Holly case, a police chief’s tax fraud and Marilyn Mosby. You’re entwined in Baltimore history and the protection against corruption, but do you get despondent over this city and its leadership and our structure?
LW: So the short answer is no. And that’s another reason I wrote the book, I wanted the book — and I hope that this comes across — to be a story of the system working, and how justice can happen and be delivered for less-than-perfect victims, how the police can be held accountable, which I think is such a pressing issue, not only here in Baltimore, but across our country. So no, actually it gave me an enormous amount of hope.
One of the fears I had was I was acutely aware of the fact that if we had failed, that would have made things worse. To have tried and failed, in some ways, felt like it would have been worse than not to have tried at all. And I think I say this in the book, that there was a senior prosecutor who used to remind me that if you’re gonna go after police officers, you better have the goods. And that’s why we tried so hard to develop the evidence to make the case as strong as we possibly could. It’s why we included the overtime fraud, because we thought that was another path to conviction that didn’t take you through East and West Baltimore, or through the testimony of people with criminal records, who might be still involved in selling drugs.
Because we had we had jurors in mind, even before we got to the trial. We were worried that (jurors) would just never believe our victims. That they would just say ‘These were drug dealers. I don’t care that (police) stole their money. If the cops are underpaid, you know, they’re doing a dirty job and a dirty city, sort of pox on all your houses.’ The overtime we thought would be something that appealed to folks that go to work every day, get paid for what they work, pay their taxes.
BFB: You said earlier you like reading about how writers approach this work. What do you read? Has your reading changed as you’ve now become a book author?
LW: I read almost entirely fiction and have done that for many years. One of the things Lawrence (Lanahan) had me do was read books by other prosecutors. Probably one of the most famous was Vincent Bugliosi, who wrote Helter Skelter about the Manson killings, which was fascinating. And I think the best true crime nonfiction novel, as he described it, ever written is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
BFB: You live in a very serious world. What do you do to unwind? How do you unplug and recharge in your personal life?
LW: So I run and I read. That’s really the habits I developed. I used to travel for the Justice Department. And so I would live out of a suitcase. I spent a whole year in Houston, a whole year in Denver. But you can always always make time to run, and then read. I always have running shoes with me, and a book, and it doesn’t cost anything. Running I would find would be a great way to get to know a city when I couldn’t go on a tour because I was there to work. But I could get out early in the morning or at the end of the day. So I still do that.