A U.S. District Court judge stepped down from his bench on Monday and apologized to two men who spent years in prison after allegedly having drugs planted on them by an officer charged in the Gun Trace Task Force racketeering case.
Umar Burley was freed from prison in August — seven years into a 15-year sentence — as prosecutors pursued allegations that Baltimore Police Sgt. Wayne Jenkins planted drugs in Burley's car following a deadly high-speed chase in 2010. Jenkins was arrested in March along with the rest of his squad, and charged with robbing citizens and falsifying documents for years.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett vacated Burley's conviction, as well as the conviction of a second man, Brent Matthews, who served almost four years in prison.
Both Burley and Matthews pleaded guilty. Bennett, who accepted their pleas at the time, said the court takes a deliberate, careful approach when accepting guilty pleas, but "the system still failed."
Bennett walked out from behind the bench and said he was apologizing on behalf of the government.
"I'm very sorry," he said while shaking their hands.
Outside the courtroom, Burley said he appreciated the judge's gesture but said the case has been a "nightmare that just won't end for me."
"I may have been released, but nothing has changed. My life will never be the same again," he said, reading from a statement.
The effort to clear their convictions was initiated by the U.S. attorney's office, and became the first federal convictions to be overturned as a result of allegations against the rogue police squad.
More could follow: On Monday, the federal public defender's office made its first formal effort to get a case overturned, arguing for the release of another man serving federal prison time.
In their petition on behalf of Levar Mullen, a former Safe Streets ant-violence worker convicted for having a gun, the federal public defender's office said Jenkins, Evodio Hendrix and a third officer "lied ... in order to justify his stop and arrest" in 2014. Hendrix is another member of the gun unit who has pleaded guilty.
"The plethora of newly revealed evidence of police misconduct against all three of the arresting officers rips to shreds their credibility and gives force to the claim that Mr. Mullen's guilty plea was involuntarily induced by a fabricated statement of probable cause produced by a team of corrupt police officers," the federal public defender's office wrote.
Bennett said that he was the judge who approved the federal wiretaps as the Gun Trace Task Force was being investigated, and said he became concerned that people may have been wrongly convicted on the officers' word. In court Monday, Bennett brought up what he called the "ugly" cases in Maryland's U.S. District Court leading to the conviction of Vice President Spiro Agnew and Gov. Marvin Mandel, and said they "pale in comparison to how ugly this case is."
"I'm afraid this is not over yet," Bennett said.
Five former Gun Trace Task Force members have pleaded guilty, while three others — including Jenkins — are slated for a trial next month. The city has received notice of more than 40 civil claims related to the officers, while city prosecutors have moved to release more than 175 people who were facing charges or were convicted in cases brought by the task force members. The Maryland public defender's office says that by their count, more than 2,000 state cases are "irreparably" tainted.
The Gun Trace Task Force case took on another twist when it was disclosed that city homicide detective Sean Suiter, who was fatally shot on Nov. 15 while investigating a case, was set to testify before a federal grand jury the next day. Prosecutors said Jenkins set up Suiter to be the one to find the drugs on Burley after his vehicle crashed.
Police have said they do not have any information to suggest the allegations were related to Suiter's mysterious death, which remains unsolved despite a $215,000 reward. They have asked the FBI to take over the investigation into Suiter's death, and are awaiting a response.
Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he was told by the government that Suiter, a highly regarded officer, was not a target of the grand jury investigation, but Burley's attorney, Steve Silverman, raised new questions about Suiter's role Monday while speaking outside the courthouse.
Silverman alleged that Suiter rammed Burley's vehicle from behind, and emerged from an unmarked car wearing all black including a face mask with his gun drawn. He said Burley believed he was being robbed, causing him to flee.
Burley struck another vehicle, killing an 87-year-old man, who happened to be the father of a Baltimore Police officer. Burley was convicted of manslaughter in state court and received 10 years in prison.
"For all these years, the scorn has been on Mr. Burley, and living under this dark cloud of taking the life of another, which he truly takes to heart, but which in essence falls on these police officers. All of these police officers," Silverman said.
Suiter wrote the statement of probable cause for Burley and Matthews' arrest, and said he searched the car and found drugs on the floor.
Prosecutors now say that Jenkins planted heroin and duped Suiter into finding it. Jenkins was charged with the allegation on Nov. 30.
Matthews said after the hearing: "We were innocent from day one."
Another attorney representing Burley and Matthews in court, Andrew C. White, told Bennett that prosecutors at the time had heard jail calls in which the men described what happened to them, but the government persisted with the case.
It is unknown how many other cases worked by Gun Trace Task Force officers were brought in federal court. Mullen's case is the first to be challenged citing the corruption case.
Mullen was working for the Safe Streets anti-violence program in 2014 when he was stopped by Jenkins and Detective Ben Frieman. The officers said they saw Mullen driving without a seat belt, and asked him for permission to search his vehicle. When he said no, according to police, Jenkins observed Mullen using his hands to push an object into his waistband, and the officers removed Mullen from the car and said they found a gun in his waistband.
At the time, Mullen's public defender said the officers lacked justification to stop his car, but he ended up taking a plea deal and received eight years in prison. The arrest also caused problems for the Safe Streets program, which was suspended following Mullen's arrest.
The federal public defender's office wrote in a motion filed Monday that the statement of probable cause "contains two critical lies that undermine the entire basis" for the stop and arrest of Mullen. Though he was pulled over for not wearing a seat belt, the stop occurred at 11:30 p.m. "in the dark of the night," they say. And Mullen's attorneys dispute that he made a gesture toward his waistband.
His attorneys say there is also a "critical omission" from the statement of probable cause: It fails to mention that a few weeks before the arrest, Jenkins stopped and searched Mullen "without any legal reason for doing so, but found no contraband during the encounter," and police filed no report of the stop and search.
Mullen's original public defender on the case, Elizabeth Genevieve Oyer, said in an affidavit that "from the outset" Mullen said he had been pulled over without basis, and the officers had pressured him to give up information about shootings in the area, "which he declined to do because of the confidentiality rules with the Safe Streets program." Only after his refusal to cooperate was he searched, she said.
Oyer said Mullen was facing a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison, and she advised him to accept the plea deal for less time.
"Until the government revealed [the Gun Trace Task Force indictment] to the public, it was impossible to corroborate Mr. Mullen's assertions about the trio's lies. But now, everything has changed," his attorneys wrote in the motion to vacate his conviction.
It is not clear how Hendrix was involved in the case. He pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in July, and faces up to nine years in federal prison.
The Sun previously reported that a city prosecutor complained about Jenkins and Frieman in 2014, after determining that a statement of probable cause in a drug arrest made by the officers did not match CCTV footage. All charges against that man were dropped, but Jenkins continued to make arrests and two years later was promoted to lead the Gun Trace Task Force.
Frieman remains an officer, and has since been promoted to sergeant. Police have not made Frieman available for an interview.
Mullen wrote a letter last year to the judge in his case, in which he quotes her as saying he had "by far the worst criminal record you have seen in all your years on the bench." Mullen was writing to ask that he be put into a "second chance" program to help him successfully transition after his release. Mullen attached a detailed success plan, as well as certificates from vocational programs he was participating in behind bars.
"Your honor, you know firsthand the challenges I'm up against heading back to Baltimore City. Your honor, I'm asking for your help!" he wrote.