As city prosecutors surveyed the wreckage left behind by the conviction of eight members of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task Force, they came across the case of Keith Kelly.
Kelly had been convicted in 2015 of drug charges in a case that relied on the word of the now-tainted officers, putting his conviction among those that could be reversed.
But when attorneys went to find Kelly, they were informed he had died four months earlier.
Nevertheless, the hearing went forward this week.
Assistant State’s Attorney Tony Gioia and assistant public defender Deborah Levi took their places at the trial table. Both have been tasked by their respective agencies with reviewing the cases impacted by the federal racketeering convictions of the gun unit officers. The officers were found to have been stealing from citizens for years, lying on official paperwork, and taking thousands from taxpayers in the form of unworked overtime pay.
With the officers’ integrity compromised, prosecutors undertook an initial review that encompassed about 280 cases. If the cases could be salvaged, they would try to salvage them. If the cases relied substantially on the officers, they would be dropped, or, if already closed with a conviction, prosecutors would file motions to re-open the cases and drop them. Defense attorneys undertook a parallel effort.
Kelly’s brush with the Gun Trace Task Force came in June 2015, when officers came crashing into his home armed with a search warrant. Sgt. Thomas Allers and Detectives Momodu Gondo and Jemell Rayam, who have all pleaded guilty in the racketeering case, were among the officers who searched and said they found heroin.
Kelly posted $50,000 bail and was released. Four months later, he pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay a fine of $100.
On Wednesday afternoon, no one was present in the fifth-floor, wood-paneled courtroom other than a reporter and a law clerk awaiting an unrelated case.
“Your honor, Deborah Levi on behalf of Mr. Kelly,” said Levi, the defense attorney he’d never met.
She explained to Circuit Judge Charles Dorsey that Kelly’s sister informed her the previous day that “he is now the late Mr. Kelly, as he has passed away since the time of this conviction.”
Gioia paused, unsure whether the matter was even worth going forward.
“The reason for my pausing is that, ordinarily, the unfortunate events in this case would not be an occasion for someone to have a conviction … vacated,” he said.
“But,” he continued, “since we don’t have a death certificate, we don’t know factually that he is deceased, I would ask the court entertain the motion, favorably of course, and allow the state to enter a nolle prosse in the case.”
“Granted,” Dorsey said.
Prior to Kelly’s case, another also was re-opened and dismissed. Richard Anthony Griffin’s handgun conviction from 2015 no longer stands. Prosecutors and the public defender’s office haven’t been able to find him, either.
Back at her office, which faces a whiteboard with the Gun Trace Task Force officers’ names and the dates of their earliest known integrity problems, Levi sat down and dialed Kelly’s family to inform them of the disposition.
Ethel Carter, Kelly’s mother, told a reporter that her son had died from a heart attack the day before New Year’s Eve. He had gotten married recently.
“I’m glad everything worked out in his favor,” Carter said of the reversed conviction.
She asked if she could throw out paperwork related to the case, and Levi said she could.
Levi and Gioia went back to court Thursday afternoon to reverse additional convictions related to the Gun Trace Task Force officers. And even more are expected: Prosecutors have widened their review of the gun unit’s compromised cases, saying new allegations that arose at the federal trial of two of the officers could put the number in the thousands.
The changes could give second chances to scores of Baltimoreans arrested by the unit. Some were victims of bad police work. Some are getting a lucky break.
There was no legal consequence for reversing the conviction of the departed Keith Kelly.
“It was the right thing to do,” Levi said.