Officers Get Probation for Misconduct

… Judge refuses to strip badges, but officers face uncertain future …

By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

7:20 PM EDT, June 1, 2011

Two Baltimore police officers convicted of misconduct for stranding two 15-year-old boys far from their homes received 18-month suspended jail terms and probation Wednesday, with a judge refusing prosecutors’ request to strip them of their badges.

Detectives Tyrone Francis and Milton Smith asserted their innocence before Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory handed down the sentence.

“I still believe the only thing I’m actually guilty of is doing my job,” Smith said.

The father of one of the victims had asked that Doory send the men to jail. Francis and Smith were acquitted by a jury of kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault, and convicted on two counts each of misconduct. A third officer, Gregory Hellen, was acquitted by Doory in a rare dual judge-jury trial.

It was the first case personally tried by Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein.

The officers were accused of picking up two teens in West Baltimore at separate points on May 4, 2009, dropping one off on a street corner in East Baltimore and taking the other to the side of the highway that runs through Patapsco Valley State Park in Howard County. That teen, Michael Johnson Jr., was left in the rain without shoes and said his cellphone had been broken in half and thrown out the window.

Defense attorneys said that the teens were providing information to officers and concocted the stories to cover their tracks. They cast doubt on whether the teen’s cellphone was broken and presented evidence suggesting that the prosecution was politically motivated.

Doory said the fact that Johnson was left in Howard County without shoes “stood like a monument” in the middle of the case and remained inadequately explained. “What I don’t understand is the ‘why,'” Doory said. “I can only conclude that this was done for fun … or as homage to the legends of the good old boys, or was a convoluted attempt to teach someone respect.”

Before sentencing, defense attorneys Kenneth Ravenell and Michael Belsky argued that Bernstein and Assistant State’s Attorney Michelle Martin had made inappropriate statements during closing arguments, including one remark by Bernstein suggesting the officers had committed similar acts before but were caught in this case. The attorneys also said the jury had been given poor instructions on how to decide guilt on the misconduct charges.

Doory denied those motions and said the issues raised would not have swayed the case. Defense attorneys said they believe the case is ripe for an appeal.

Smith’s and Francis’ relatives then made appeals for leniency. Francis, whose father was a homicide detective, grew up and lives in the city and often returns to his old school to talk to children about making the right choices. For his police work, he received a Bronze Star in 2008 and has been honored with several other commendations.

He told Doory he “wouldn’t dare fraud you or anyone else in this courtroom. … I never meant to cause anybody harm.”

“He’s lost two years of his life,” said his attorney, Belsky. “Most important, he’s lost his reputation. There’s no greater punishment that can be bestowed upon him than that.”

Smith, meanwhile, was going through the process to be a task force officer with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. His father died six years ago, and he’s taken on a greater role in his family, relatives said.

“[Smith] has lost so much, but he never lost faith in the city,” said a sister. “He still feels he can make this world a better place.”

Prosecutors asked for a two-year suspended sentence, a $5,000 fine and community service. Martin said that their conduct “disqualifies them from being police officers” and that stripping them of their police powers would send a message to other officers.

“I truly feel both of them should never, ever be police,” said Michael Johnson Sr., the father of one of the victims.

Though Doory rejected that request, the officers face an uncertain future when their cases go before internal police administrative trial boards, after which they could be fired.

Doory said he did not believe jail and a fine were appropriate punishments. But he did sentence them to 250 hours of community service, to be served in the area where the teens were taken from.

“I want something to be built out of what happens here,” Doory said.

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