Baltimore public defenders say city prosecutors have vastly underestimated the number of cases dropped or under review in 2017 due to controversial police body cam footage and a series of racketeering indictments of Baltimore cops.
The Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office revealed this week that upwards of 300 cases have been dropped and about 864 affected by three sets of police body camera footage, and the indictments of eight officers from a plainclothes firearm-investigations unit.
All of those cases have been called into question or abandoned due to the involvement of officers who are accused of robbing suspects and city residents, selling drugs, planting drugs to facilitate arrests or defrauding taxpayers by logging fake hours. Affected or dropped cases include any in which the officers are witnesses or arresting officers.
But attorneys from the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, who represent many of the defendants charged in these dropped and altered cases, say the number is much higher.
Debbie Katz Levi heads the OPD’s Special Litigation Section, and is the lead attorney addressing the indicted officers’ court cases, as well as those of officers accused of planting drugs or trying to re-enact evidence discovery.
“While we applaud the initial efforts of the Baltimore City Office of the State’s Attorney, we believe their numbers are far too low and there are still far too many individuals incarcerated on tainted convictions,” Levi, an assistant public defender, said in a statement provided to Baltimore Fishbowl on Wednesday.
The discrepancy was apparent even from the moment prosecutors shared their numbers on Tuesday evening. Back in March when the first seven officers from the Gun Trace Task Force were indicted – their unit head, Sgt. Thomas Allers, was charged separately five months later – OPD spokeswoman Melissa Rothstein said their estimate of affected cases was up “in the thousands.” Prosecutors at the time calculated that more than 200 cases active, adjudicated or closed cases were affected.
Levi said prosecutors “have yet to disclose how they have arrived at these totals and our office has calculated much greater numbers of affected convictions.”
The fallout from the federal indictments has been tremendous. In one example, a violence interrupter working for Safe Streets had been arrested in August on firearm and drug charges – by four of the eight officers who were indicted. (He lost his job as a result.) His attorney claimed they planted the evidence used to charge him. Prosecutors dropped the charges in March after the arresting officers themselves were arrested.
As a result of the body camera incidents, which captured controversial arrests and drug discoveries in November 2016, January and June, prosecutors have had to go back and review 73 cases that had already been closed.
Levi had another complaint about the aftermath of the body camera videos. While prosecutors released the names of some officers depicted in the first two body camera footage cases from November 2016 and January of this year, they haven’t aired the names of the officers seen in the third video from June.
“We think they are constitutionally obligated to do so,” she said.
Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Melba Saunders responded in a statement:
Our office has had to employ significant resources to thoroughly evaluate the impact of the questionable body-worn camera incidents and eight federally indicted officers on pending and closed cases. While that review process is fluid and complex, we are confident in the numbers we recently shared with the public.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has been critical of the Gun Trace Task Force members in public, and took a sympathetic stance with prosecutors reviewing hundreds of cases as a result of the first two body camera incidents. But he got defensive this summer after the third body camera incident, which showed an officer finding narcotics in some brush, dropping them to the ground upon realizing he hadn’t switched his own camera on, and then picking the drugs back up.
State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby suggested the officer was trying to recreate evidence discovery on camera, and announced her office was reviewing dozens of cases involving that officer as a result.
“I firmly disagree with this decision,” Davis said at a press conference. “I will not be a bystander when my police officers are doing what I, and their commanders, expect them to do in this crime fight. And it is a serious crime fight, make no mistake about that.”
Rothstein noted hearings for two of the officers indicted in the racketeering ring are scheduled in court tomorrow. Motions in State v. Charles Smith and State v. Derrick Rucker will be heard at 9 a.m. in Room 417W of the Baltimore City Circuit Courthouse.
This story has been updated with comment from the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office.
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