Crime Scenes: Police Integrity At Issue In Drug Arrest

… Officers held accountable for past transgressions; drug arrest thrown out by court …

By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

9:34 PM EST, December 18, 2010

A cop’s word is everything.

One poor performance in court can haunt an officer’s career — and put suspected drug dealers back onto the city streets.

Back in 2003, Detective Thomas E. Wilson III ran into a federal judge who was not happy with his testimony. The judge took him to task in open court, calling the officer’s account of a drug bust “implausible and incredibly presented,” and threw out a case built around cache of drugs worth $200,000.

U.S. District Judge Andre Davis called the affidavit filed by Wilson filled with “knowing lies.”

The judge’s stinging words haunt Wilson to this day.

Maryland’s second-highest court ruled this month that a defense attorney acted appropriately in a 2008 trial when he used Davis’ words to hammer away at Wilson’s credibility and call into question another drug arrest.

The same court ruled that the prosecutor overstepped legal boundaries while defending Wilson from the defense lawyer’s questions. The judges deemed her statements — calling Wilson honorable and insisting that he was “telling the truth” — had unfairly influenced the jury into convicting the suspect.

Result: The conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered.

Dealing with cops of questionable character has been a source of controversy for years and has led to disputes between Baltimore’s police commissioner and State’s Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, who is leaving office next month after losing an election to Gregg Bernstein.

Prosecutors keep a so-called “do not call list” of cops who cannot or should not testify in court. Officers who have been convicted of crimes are on the list, but so are officers who have not been found guilty — administratively or criminally — of anything, and who the department believes are perfectly acceptable even though prosecutors think otherwise.

Being barred from the witness stand can effectively ruin the career of a police officer, who would not be able to get any arrests to stand up in court. Bernstein, an ally of the police commissioner, has criticized the list and said he would work with police to deal with each case as it arises.

How would he deal with a cop like Wilson, who wasn’t even on the do-not-call list but still finds himself in trouble over his past?

Let’s go back to 2003, when the detective was testifying in U.S. District Court in front of Davis on a drug seizure that began with the arrest of a single dealer on a street corner. Wilson had said in his report that his investigation was based on anonymous complaints over the course of the first week of October, that he had seen a drug deal from a covert position and that he saw the purchaser run away.

But Wilson testified in front of Davis that his investigation was based on a single tip the same day as the arrest. He said he and other detectives had been on a sidewalk, not hiding, and that the purchaser had walked away instead of running.

In unusually blunt criticism in open court, the judge asked, “How could it be that a narrative so implausible, and so implausible and incredibly presented, might be accepted by the court?”

Davis, frustrated by a series of police missteps at the time, said, “The community is entitled to a higher level of performance, to a higher level of professionalism. … They’re fumbling and bumbling, and they don’t understand the law. They don’t understand the Constitution. They don’t understand the limits that the law places upon them.”

The judge threw out the arrest and dismissed the charges before the case could even reach trial.

Baltimore police disciplined Wilson for neglect of duty, stripped him of five days’ pay and ordered him to remedial training. His attorney said the administrative trial board did not convict Wilson of an integrity violation.

In July 2008, Wilson and his partner, Isaac Carrington, arrested Bryan Sivells at 20th and Boone streets after watching what they concluded was a hand-to-hand drug transaction with a woman they heard asking for “some ready,” a term for crack cocaine. They seized 13 baggies of the drug hidden in the suspect’s right sock.

It was a routine drug bust and a routine trial — until Sivells’ attorney got Wilson on the witness stand in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Louis Curran quickly brought up Judge Davis.

“Do you recall the uncomfortable experience?” Curran said to Wilson.

As the jury listened, the detective and lawyer sparred for the better part of three hours. Curran portrayed Wilson as a liar, and Wilson countered that he was telling the truth — this time as well as in 2003. He said in 2003 he got mixed up on some small details, but did not fabricate what he had seen.

In the current case, Curran questioned Wilson about why he didn’t arrest a woman he said he saw buy drugs from his client, or at the very least get her name for the report. Curran concluded that Wilson had simply made her up, that the drug deal had never occurred.

Who, he asked, could believe a detective already deemed a liar by another judge?

“His credibility is suspect,” Curran told jurors. “This is a man who was chewed out in almost unheard-of fashion by a federal judge five years ago.” He called the drug case he was trying “insulting.” He added, “I mean, I’ve seen some lame prosecutions. I’ve seen thin stuff go juries. This is about as thin as it ever gets.”

Assistant State’s Attorney Anna Mantegna fired back that the defense attorney had spent more time impeaching Wilson than defending his own client. She called Wilson “a longtime veteran” who testified for three hours and didn’t “sound like someone that’s ashamed or should be hiding or embarrassed. And he shouldn’t be.”

The prosecutor called Wilson’s previous errors an argument over “semantics” and said both detectives were “honorable men.” She noted “there’s enough legitimate crime” in Baltimore that police don’t have to make it up.

A Baltimore Circuit Court jury found Bryan Sivells guilty of drug possession and a judge sentenced him to seven years in prison.

But the Court of Special Appeals ruled that the assistant state’s attorney went too far in defending Wilson. Prosecutors are not allowed to vouch for the credibility of witnesses because it is believed juries might be persuaded to put rhetoric over facts.

The trial judge seemed to realize that the prosecutor had overstepped her bounds. “When the prosecutor first stated that the detectives were ‘honorable men,'” the appellate court said, “the trial judge instructed the jurors that the prosecutor’s opinion was ‘not evidence in this case.'”

And when the prosecutor repeated the comments and added that Wilson “told the truth,” the judge again told the jury, according to the Court of Appeals: “The state is sounding like it’s expressing its own opinion, which it is not permitted to do.”

The appeals court ruled the judge’s warning to the jury did not go far enough to counter the prosecutor’s inappropriate comments, saying the detective’s credibility was “the central issue in the case.”

A Baltimore police spokesman said the department would not comment on the case, and prosecutors said they’d leave it up to Bernstein whether to retry the case under the new guidelines set by the court.

Wilson’s lawyer, Michael Davey, complained that the rules of discovery favor defendants over police. He noted that defense lawyers routinely seek the personnel files of cops who busted their clients. He said Wilson’s problems with Davis should not have been allowed to be presented at the drug trial because his client had been exonerated of lying by the department.

But courts have repeatedly ruled that past integrity issues are fair game in court. Davey said that at least prosecutors should be allowed to fight back “and use whatever they need to. I don’t think the state’s rights is any less than the defendants’.”

Wilson will be forever judged by the federal judge’s statements back in 2003.

And this ruling from the Court of Special Appeals means Wilson will have to simply take it and prosecutors will have to keep their mouths shut.

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

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