Fallout from indictment of Baltimore police officers continues as prosecutors drop dozens of charges

Two months after seven Baltimore police officers were indicted on federal racketeering charges, prosecutors have dropped charges in nearly 50 cases that depended on the officers' testimony.

The Baltimore State's Attorney's Office and defense attorneys also are seeking to drop charges in more than a dozen other cases brought by the seven.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are working together to assess whether similar action is needed in more cases. The joint review has sped the process, participants say, but there is no time frame for when the work will be completed.

Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby said seven weeks ago that her office was reviewing about 200 cases that were "possibly tainted" by the involvement of the Gun Trace Task Force, a unit responsible for scores of gun arrests amid record-setting city violence in recent years.

Since that time, her office has dropped 39 pending cases involving 180 gun charges and 55 drug charges, seven traffic charges, one second-degree assault charge and one resisting arrest charge, according to data her office provided to The Baltimore Sun. Other cases were dropped after judges agreed to vacate the convictions of incarcerated prisoners.

Many other cases have yet to be reviewed. While prosecutors initially said they would only reconsider cases going back to 2015, they now say they may have to go further back as defense attorneys raise questions about cases that pre-date the alleged misdeeds of the indicted officers.

Antonio Gioia, chief counsel for Mosby's office, has been leading the review. He said he has sought to preserve cases that can be corroborated with evidence beyond the officers' testimony, but that such independent evidence doesn't exist in many cases.

He said the review is "a very difficult process, and time consuming," and won't be concluded for months.

Natalie Finegar, who has been leading the review of cases for the public defender's office, said it represented an "overwhelming" amount of work that is far from over.

"It's particularly frustrating for our clients — some of whom are behind bars — who shouldn't have been charged in these cases in the first place," Finegar said.

Some legal observers say Mosby's office deserves credit for taking proactive steps to address the alleged misconduct by the indicted officers. Others say city prosecutors knew or should have known of concerns about the officers before federal prosecutors swooped in, and should have reviewed their arrests or barred their testimony sooner.

Gioia said prosecutors were unaware of the officers' alleged misconduct until the indictment was announced.

The seven officers — Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and Detectives Momodu Gondo, Evodio Hendrix, Daniel Hersl, Jemell Rayam, Marcus Taylor and Maurice Ward — are accused of shaking down citizens, filing false court paperwork and making fraudulent overtime claims.

The officers have all pleaded not guilty. They are being held in federal detention pending trial.

Harvey Bruner, an attorney for Hendrix, declined to comment on the specifics of his client's case but said the effort by prosecutors to vacate convictions and withdraw guilty pleas seemed premature given that none of the allegations against the officers has been proved.

"It's kind of early," he said. "They haven't even been convicted of anything."

Mirriam Seddiq, Taylor's attorney, said "everybody involved in the criminal justice system deserves a fair shake," including her client and the people he helped arrest. She declined further comment.

Attorneys for the other five officers either declined to comment or could not be reached. A scheduling conference has been set for May 16 in U.S. District Court downtown.

The review of cases has been eased by the collaboration between prosecutors and defense attorneys, but has not been smooth sailing.

For instance, on April 20, Judge Alfred Nance denied a joint motion to vacate the conviction against James Jackson, 58, who received a five-year sentence after pleading guilty in December 2015 to drug possession with the intent to distribute and using a firearm in a drug trafficking crime.

Nance wrote in a one-page order that his decision was based on a "review of the court file, prior decisions of this Court, and full consideration of all the facts and circumstances."

Nance declined through a court spokesman to discuss the case.

Finegar said Nance's denial raised questions about whether she and Gioia were taking the best approach to clear the convictions in cases involving guilty pleas, and they "started re-evaluating the legal theory behind what we wanted to do."

She and Gioia then tried a new approach with Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters, who is in charge of the court's criminal division.

Peters had granted two previous motions to vacate convictions in cases with plea deals, but Gioia and Finegar weren't sure if he would do so again given Nance's latest ruling.

Before them were four of the 27 adjudicated gun cases involving incarcerated defendants. Antonio Mason, 24, had pleaded guilty in February to possession of a firearm as a felon; William Cason, 27, in June to two gun violations; Raytawan Benjamin, 19, in August to gun possession; and Donye Thompson, 21, in August to a gun charge.

Case by case, Gioia and Finegar jointly asked for an extension of the time allotted for parties to withdraw a guilty plea, which Peters quickly granted, and then jointly asked to withdraw each defendant's guilty plea, which Peters also granted.

Gioia then dropped all of the charges, meaning Mason, Cason, Benjamin and Thompson — collectively serving more than a dozen years behind bars — were free.

Peters said only that his decision to grant the motions was in the "interest of justice."

Circuit Judge Jeannie J. Hong used the same language Wednesday when she granted similar motions in two additional cases, withdrawing the guilty pleas in September of Djibril Chase, 22, on gun and drug charges, and Farron Tates, 25, on a gun charge. Gioia, citing the alleged "egregious misconduct" of the indicted officers, then dropped all charges against the two men.

Jonas Needleman, a private defense attorney for Tates, said the now-dropped charges were the reason for his client violating probation last year on separate charges. He said that violation will keep his client behind bars unless it is dismissed as well.

Finegar said she hopes to try the same strategy in the Jackson case, where Judge Nance had denied the previous motion to vacate the sentence.

Private attorneys for other defendants arrested by the indicted officers said they aren't sure what will happen in their cases but are hoping for the best.

Jason Silverstein represents Kevin Gardner, 46, who is serving 2 1/2 years behind bars after pleading guilty to a gun charge last year. Silverstein said he filed a joint motion with Gioia to have the sentence vacated.

Gardner was arrested by Jenkins, Ward, Hendrix and Taylor in January 2016. The officers said they pulled him over because he wasn't wearing a seat belt, that he shrugged to give them permission to search his car, and that they then found a gun, Silverstein said.

Silverstein said there is no way the officers could have seen into Gardner's car to know he wasn't wearing a seat belt because the car had the "darkest tint you've ever seen," and that Gardner's alleged "shoulder shrug" was not consent for a search.

He said Gardner only pleaded guilty after a judge denied his motion to suppress the questionable evidence against him.

John Cox, another defense attorney, said he has a client who has already served time for a conviction based on an arrest by the indicted officers, but wants the conviction taken off his record.

Cox claims the indicted officers inappropriately searched his client's apartment, and the federal indictment against them supports his contention that their testimony about the search shouldn't be trusted.

It doesn't matter that his client, whom he did not identify, eventually pleaded guilty, he said.

"When you learn that the guilty plea is so incredibly tainted by the stench of these officers and their actions — I don't think anyone would trust what they did — are you really going to let that procedure stand in the way of fundamental fairness at this point?"

krector@baltsun.com

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