Sting case heightens animosity

The corruption case against Baltimore Police Officer Brian L. Sewell seemed open and shut when it broke four months ago.

Undercover officers planted seven small bags of suspected cocaine - in reality, shaved Ivory soap - on a park bench, and Sewell used the suspected narcotics to falsely charge a burglary suspect with drug possession.


Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris hailed the officer's arrest as a testament to his department's aggressive stance against corruption. The six-year veteran was caught red-handed.

Or so it seemed.


In the ensuing months, the criminal case against Sewell has crumbled, leaving behind an embarrassing wake of tainted evidence, allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, stolen police files and on Wednesday, a startling revelation that Sewell was not the initial officer suspected of misconduct.

What at first seemed a simple corruption case involving an average officer on a routine call has exposed long-simmering animosity between city police and prosecutors, who differ on how the Sewell case should have been handled and who is to blame for botching the case.

Michael A. Millemann, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, said the episode may look bad to the public, but the tension that has resulted from sometimes embarrassing developments shows that necessary change is occurring.

"What looks like chaos is the inevitable aspect of reform," he said.

State perjury and misconduct charges have been dropped against Sewell, who has proclaimed his innocence, but he remains the subject of a federal civil rights investigation and faces an administrative hearing during which the department said it will seek to fire him.

The news about the involvement of a second officer came Wednesday during a radio call-in show featuring representatives from the police and prosecutor's office.

Previously undisclosed to the public or to Sewell's defense team was that it was an officer other than Sewell who initially picked up the planted "drugs" from the park bench and later gave them to Sewell at a nearby burglary scene. Sewell didn't become a suspect until 10 days later.

That enraged Sewell's lawyers, who view the information as critical to their defense because it raises questions about another potential suspect.


Prosecutors argue that they didn't need to turn over the details of the other officer's initial involvement, but they also say they warned police that the 10-day delay in discovering Sewell's alleged complicity was a "major hurdle" in getting a conviction.

The information about the second officer also was not divulged to the public during the initial Oct. 4 news conference announcing Sewell's arrest.

Police officials did not explicitly say how the drugs got into Sewell's possession. But their careful omissions in telling a vague sequence of events left the impression that Sewell was the one who grabbed them, officials now concede.

Case defended

Police still emphasize that the crux of their case remains unchanged: Sewell wrote under oath in a statement of probable cause that he saw the man he arrested place the drugs on the bench, when in fact they were placed there by undercover police detectives.

"When everything is swept away, it does not change the fact that Sewell wrote something that is not true," Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris said this week.


But to defense lawyers, the new information bolsters their client's version and fills in gaps about how the events unfolded in St. Katherine Memorial Park on Presstman Street.

The case of the State of Maryland vs. Officer Brian L. Sewell is not so simple anymore.

Sting operation

On Sept. 4, detectives planted a bag containing seven smaller bags of suspected crack cocaine into a crack of a park bench.

They called the 311 nonemergency number and anonymously reported drug activity in the park.

They went as far as giving the dispatcher a description of a fake suspect, a mistake that defense lawyers have seized on to show that Sewell had a legitimate rea- son to question somebody.


False assumtion

Until this week, it was widely assumed by people outside the police and prosecutor's office that Sewell picked the drugs off the bench.

In fact, Sean Malone, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, said that two other Central District officers responded to the park ahead of Sewell.

One of them picked up the drugs from the bench, police said. It could not be learned whether there are surveillance photographs showing that.

The three officers in the park, including the later-arriving Sewell, then responded to a burglary call a few blocks away in the 1900 block of McCulloh St.

Man is arrested


Police said they saw Frederick L. McCoy, 18, leaving through the front door, and Sewell arrested him.

Sewell charged McCoy with burglary and added a drug-possession charge.

He wrote in his report that he had seen McCoy "placing a clear plastic bag into a crack of a park bench" on Presstman Street.

He said McCoy fit the description given out by the dispatcher for the drug call and of a man he saw running from the park when he arrived.

But police argue McCoy could not have placed the drugs on the bench; they did that.

They also argue that McCoy's clothing did not fit the description broadcast by the dispatcher, and he was never near the park.


Norris said in an interview Wednesday that Sewell asked his fellow officer for the drugs at the burglary scene, which was out of sight of the undercover surveillance team at the park.

He said the officer gave Sewell the package, and McCoy ended up being charged for the drugs.

Initially, police suspected the first officer to arrive. That officer remains on duty in the Central District and is not considered a suspect at this time.

For 10 days, undercover detectives watched him. They pulled his reports and read his run sheets - an hour-by-hour chronology of an officer's day.

"They were trying to track what happened to the drugs," Malone said.

But nothing turned up.


Tested positive

Finally, police said their attention turned to Sewell.

They looked at the burglary case in which McCoy was arrested and discovered he also had been charged with drug possession.

Investigators pulled the suspected drugs that Sewell had inventoried for McCoy's arrest and got the smoking gun.

They tested positive for Ivory soap.

Police quickly released McCoy from the detention center and arrested Sewell. Norris, at the October news conference, called his officers' alleged actions "a horrible breach of the public trust."


Trying to build trust

The commissioner had tried to shore up public trust by creating the Integrity Unit to pursue corrupt officers and set up elaborate stings - crucial to selling his assertive policing strategies that had some residents worried that misconduct would be tolerated at the expense of a lower crime rate.

Two months later, the Integrity Unit became corrupted. Someone broke into its secret offices in Essex - known to at most 15 people in the department - and stole several files, including Sewell's, on Christmas Eve.

No evidence has surfaced to believe that Sewell's case was intentionally sabotaged.

But State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy, over strong objections of the police commissioner and mayor, threw out the charges against Sewell.

The following day, Mayor Martin O'Malley launched a profanity-laced tirade at the top prosecutor, all but calling for her to resign.


Jessamy argued that the police office burglary had tainted the evidence and also the testimony of Integrity Unit detectives, who came under suspicion in the break-in.

Police argued that prosecutors used the burglary as an excuse to cover for their own misconduct in not turning over evidence to the defense, putting the case in jeopardy because of a legal technicality.

Further deterioration

The relationship between police and prosecutors deteriorated further Wednesday.

Norris said Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter, who prosecutes police corruption, could not be trusted after she went on a popular radio call-in show using the name "Ann" and attacked the Police Department.

He and Ritter represent two crucial components of the criminal justice system who ordinarily are on the same side in fighting crime.


Norris said the bickering has brought into "sharp focus" the problems facing this city in terms of crime reduction.

People, he said, "spend more time trying to point fingers than trying to go forward and doing something about the problems we have."