April 15, 2011
Attorneys for three Baltimore police officers accused of kidnapping and misconduct have been unsuccessful in trying to get their cases heard separately, but a development before Friday’s lunch break could lead to that result anyway.
Earlier in the morning, Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. Doory struck down a motion to have the allegations of kidnapping by two different teens severed into different cases. That came on the heels of Doory’s rejection yesterday that the defendants, Tyrone Francis, Gregory Hellen and Milton Smith, be tried separately.
But just before a break for lunch, Doory asked the defendants if they would like the case to be decided by a judge or by a jury. One officer asked for a jury trial, another asked for a bench trial, and the third said he was undecided. The practical effect is that those requests could lead to the cases being tried separately despite the earlier ruling.
Attorney David B. Irwin, who represents Hellen, told Doory that the Court of Appeals has “strongly disapproved of joint and simultaneous trials of co-defendants when one wants a trial by jury and the other by judge.” He said such a case was recently struck down by the appellate courts. “There’s too many landmines,” Irwin said.
University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken, who has not attended the hearings, said the elections could lead to separate trials, but it is not a certainty.
“I think certainly in an abundance of caution that might be a reason for the judge to separate out the jury trials and a non-jury trial, but the one having the jury trial could actually have the trial simultaneously,” he said. “You always have a greater potential for mistrials…when you have multiple defendants. My guess is this only gets greater when you have some of those defendants with a jury trial and some of those defendants with a bench trial in the same proceeding.”
However, Warnken said he believes Hellen wants a bench trial because he is concerned about the jury’s perception of police.
“I’m thinking the reason he asked for a court trial was because of this fear of a primarily African-American jury viewing alleged criminal conduct of a police officer who was white against victims who were African-American,” he said.
Arguments will continue this afternoon. Jury selection is not slated to begin until Tuesday.
The case against the officers involves allegations that they picked up two West Baltimore teens in May 2009, dropping one off in East Baltimore and, separately, the other in a Howard County park without shoes or a cellphone.The case has taken on added significance with State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein selecting it as the first case he will personally try as the city’s top prosecutor.
Bernstein hasn’t tried a case from the prosecutor’s side of a courtroom since 1991, when he was a federal prosecutor. But he’s been a well-known white collar defense attorney for years.
In the early going of the trial, Bernstein and defense attorney Kenneth Ravenell have occasionally sparred. Today, Bernstein laughed out loud at one point when Ravenell said he wasn’t trying to “pick” on Bernstein in attacking his argument.
“We all know each other … It’s going to be a hard fought case, and we’ll try to do it as clean as we can,” Ravenell said.
-Justin Fenton and Yeganeh June Torbati