At 7:40 p.m. Jan. 17, a police officer pulled his marked cruiser to a corner on Woodbine Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, got out and approached Antonio Walker-Bey, a face so familiar he knew him by his nickname. The officer, standing three to five feet away, said he saw the young man toss something to the ground and quickly walk away.
Officer Alexi A. Correa picked up three small ziplock bags. One contained three pieces of crack cocaine, another, seven pieces of crack, and the third, five caps of heroin. Correa said he ran down the 20-year-old suspect as he tried to hide in a nearby assisted-living home.
It would seem a simple case, one that could be disposed of quickly on a court docket crowded with violence and trafficking in far larger amounts of drugs. But in many ways the State of Maryland vs. Antonio Walker-Bey is representative of how Baltimore's street-level war on drugs is fought, and the way it unfolded so common that it's got its own name in the courthouse:
It's called a "dropsy."
And prosecuting a "dropsy" is anything but easy.
Only two witnesses testified at the two-day trial - Correa and a crime lab technician who tested the drugs and concluded they were indeed heroin and cocaine. Defense attorney Marie Sennett told jurors in her opening statement that the case rested solely "on the word of the officer."
And, Sennett added, "Unfortunately, that's not enough."
The jury agreed and acquitted Walker-Bey on all charges of possessing drugs and possessing drugs with intent to distribute.
This was the case for which I had been selected for the jury pool on Nov. 19, but didn't get chosen as one of the 12 seated for the case. I had hoped to get an inside look at deliberations on a case that comes down to police integrity, to get an idea of what jurors actually talk about behind closed doors and what they say about our city's police.
I didn't get that chance, but I did return to the courthouse last week and watched the trial on video, to see what happened to Antonio Walker-Bey and to think about what I would've done had I been chosen to sit in judgment.
I've reported on police for years, on good cops and questionable cops, and I've watched police engage in a futile, frustrating corner-to-corner battle against drugs for as long as I can remember.
Complaints that cops plant drugs, steal money, file charging documents that are carbon copies of hundreds of others, with just names, dates and streets changed, are about as old as the police force itself. In 2000, after a city cop got busted in an internal sting and was accused of planting drugs on a innocent man, residents of the area simply yawned. Many told me the rules of the game: Cops find a drug stash and the nearest person to it gets the charge.
That's exactly what the defense attorney for Walker-Bey said happened in this case. Sennett emphasized that jurors should be guided in large part by their experiences living in Baltimore (in other words, some cops lie ). Prosecutor Sara Gross emphasized that jurors should be guided by common sense (in other words, why else would someone be standing on a corner in a drug-infested neighborhood).
Sennett told jurors there were "huge gaps" in the state case, that the officer tripped on his own lies when he couldn't remember the precise location of a stop sign and an overhead light at the corner, that the drugs were found near a fence, too far away for them to be dropped or tossed from where her client had been standing.
Correa, Sennett said in her closing argument, is "giving you descriptions that are incorrect because they never happened." She accused Correa of finding someone else's drug stash and pinning it on Walker-Bey. She noted the area is known for a brisk narcotics trade, a place she said "where people drop drugs all the time."
Gross had to overcome mistrust of police she knows festers in neighborhoods across the city. She told jurors that "it's real easy to throw around terms like 'lie' and 'liar' without any proof, especially in Baltimore City. We all read the papers on police misconduct. We know what happens in Baltimore City. ... But just because a couple of officers are tainted doesn't mean every officer should be painted with the same brush."
Left at that, I admit I would've had a difficult time making up my mind, though I found myself leaning toward conviction. I don't fault the officer for not remembering the exact location of a stop sign, nor do I think that turns the case or damages his credibility. The officer testified that he participated in more than 1,000 drug arrests during his nine-year career, and the court recognized him as an expert in determining how drugs are packaged for distribution, as he said they were in this case.
I want to believe the officer saw what he said he saw.
But for me, there was a crucial turning point that had nothing to do with whether the cop told the truth: Nobody fingerprinted the bags of drugs that Correa said Walker-Bey tossed to the ground.
Gross said there was no reason to take that extra step since the officer was three feet away when he saw the man toss the bags. "Do you need fingerprints to tell it's him?" the prosecutor said. "No."
But then Gross said something disturbing. She noted the recession and Baltimore's economic woes and said the city "cannot afford to fingerprint evidence when it is obvious where it came from. And this came from Antonio Walker-Bey's hands."
That brings us right back to trusting cops, and in a city in which people don't trust cops, you'd think authorities would do everything possible to remove any and all doubt. Even if it seems impossible or unwieldy or even silly to fingerprint small bags of drugs seized by the thousands across the city, I'm betting some jurors believed the drugs were in Walker-Bey's hands but were missing the one thing that could've proved it.
Police commanders have long preached that we can't arrest our way out our drug problem, and the drug war doesn't turn on whether Antonio Walker-Bey goes to jail, or even if he's guilty and got away with it or was a bystander who suffered collateral damage from the cops' war on drugs.
In the end, this case wasn't even about whether the officer lied as much as it was about whether our leaders truly believe that sending petty drug dealers to jail will make Baltimore a better, safer place. And if we do believe that it does, and this is the way we want to fight, we can't come to court and say we can't afford to do it right.