Attorneys for the family of a deceased Baltimore man who spent 17 years in prison before being exonerated of murder charges in 2016 will begin collecting evidence soon in a civil lawsuit alleging a prolonged and widespread “pattern” of misconduct by Baltimore Police homicide detectives.
In denying motions by the police department and two of its personnel to dismiss the case earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Ellen Hollander wrote that the complaint filed by the family of the late Malcolm Bryant — which also cites eight other cases where convicts were cleared of killings in the city — painted “a compelling picture of a police department that turned a blind eye to the conduct of its officers in murder investigations.”
Her ruling means the case will go forward and provides a green light for Bryant’s lawyers to start demanding records and other evidence from the police department and its homicide detectives.
Bryant was convicted of the killing of 16-year-old Toni Bullock in 1998. The conviction was vacated in May 2016 after a court-ordered DNA test on the victim’s nail clippings found a partial DNA profile that did not match Bryant. His family and other critics of the case raised other problems, including with Baltimore investigators’ interactions with witnesses and their selective presentation of evidence.
Bryant was released, but died in 2017 at age 42. His estate brought its lawsuit against the police department, homicide detective William F. Ritz and forensic analyst Barry Verger in February 2019.
Nick Brustin, a New York-based attorney for Bryant’s family, called Hollander’s ruling a “complete win” for the family that allows his team to begin asking for more documentation to prove the pattern they allege, including by requesting files from other cases and depositions from “not only officers in those cases, but high level city police officials who were setting policy and procedures.”
“We’re now going to be able to get discovery on all of these issues, and prove the misconduct, and vindicate their father in every way,” said Brustin, referring to Bryant’s sons Lamar Estep and Malique Bryant, who are party to the case.
“Tragically we lost Malcolm," he said, "but we’re going to prove that none of this was an accident — that it was the result of direct misconduct on the part of a veteran detective and the other defendants, and that it was the result of a pattern and practice of misconduct over many years.”
The city, as well as Ritz and Verger, have disputed the claims in court filings. Avi Kamionski, an attorney for Ritz and Verger, referred all questions about Hollander’s latest ruling to the city law department.
Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis professed admiration for the "comprehensiveness and lucidity” of Hollander’s opinion allowing discovery to begin, but he stressed it did not include any actual findings on the allegations or their merits.
“This is not to denigrate the importance of the ruling from plaintiff’s perspective; it is important, of course," Davis said. “But we are a long way from actual proof that at the highest levels of the BPD going back to the 1980s and 1990s, there existed a knowing policy intentionally instituted and permitted to convict actually innocent people of homicides.”
Davis said the city expects there to be “fulsome discovery" in cases of erroneous convictions like those noted in the Bryant family complaint, as well as in the slew of new cases alleging wrongdoing by members of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force, a unit of Baltimore detectives convicted in a broad scheme to rob residents of cash and drugs and steal overtime, among other offenses.
“No doubt we will win some and probably lose some," said Davis, who leaves his post as solicitor at the end of this month but will continue representing the city in select cases moving forward. “It’ll be marathon, not a sprint, I can assure you of that.”
In the Bryant case, the Innocence Project, the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office and the Maryland Office of the Public Defender released a consensus report on the investigation into Bullock’s death that referenced deviations from proper police practices and claimed police failed to adequately investigate Bryant’s alibi or a second possible suspect.
The family’s attorneys argue that Ritz and Verger acted corruptly, but also in response to “de facto policies, practices, and/or customs” within the Baltimore Police Department that included “fabricating evidence, suppressing exculpatory and impeachment evidence, and failing to conduct constitutionally adequate investigations."
To support that claim, they cited eight other cases in which men were convicted of murder in Baltimore and then exonerated after problems with the investigations were uncovered. Those cases stretch across several decades, with the earliest occurring in the 1970s.
Davis discounted the claim that a string of such cases necessarily represented a pattern.
“Some lawyers seem to believe that just because some mistake is repeated a couple of times that makes a ‘pattern’ that somehow satisfies legal standards for imposing liability. That is not the law,” he said. “Similarly, a particular ‘practice’ that an individual detective may employ is not by itself enough to establish the existence of a ‘pattern and practice’ that gives rise to liability on the part of the police agency.”
Davis said the bar for such liability, set by the U.S. Supreme Court, is “very high in order to protect against false claims and even claims that are not ‘false’ but are not the sort of claims for which taxpayers should be held liable.”
Brustin said he is confident that he and his legal partners, including from the Baltimore-based firm Brown Goldstein & Levy, would be able to prove the pattern through discovery.
He said they will not be going on a “fishing expedition,” but conducting a careful search for and review of evidence and depositions “that we think are part of proving the sort of misconduct that is relevant" in Bryant’s case.
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The time frame for that process isn’t entirely decided. The police department and individual defendants named in the case have until March 2 to respond again in the matter, and then a schedule will be determined.