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Maryland appeals court makes clear that Baltimore prosecutors can toss cases involving GTTF officers accused of corruption

In the months following the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, Baltimore prosecutors lobbied state lawmakers for more authority to throw out hundreds of criminal cases against men arrested by the rogue police squad.

The General Assembly approved the legislation in 2019, but prosecutors soon found their attempt to free one such man blocked by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge. Last week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision, ordering the judge to reconsider the state’s attorney’s office request to wipe out Anthony Walker’s conviction on drug charges.

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The appeal court opinion shores up efforts by prosecutors to toss as many as 1,300 cases compromised by the corrupt cops. The process has been well underway, and the court’s ruling clarifies that judges shouldn’t stand in the way when prosecutors seek to throw out convictions they feel are tainted.

“In the overwhelming majority of cases, these motions are granted. But there are a handful of cases in which the motions are denied and I think this opinion will be very helpful in those types of cases in the future,” said Michael Schatzow, chief deputy of the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office. “The court has provided very clear guidance.”

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Deborah Katz Levi, director of special litigation for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, said Walker feels grateful to have his case reconsidered. She noted the appeals court considered whether Walker himself would have questioned the officer about the alleged misconduct. The police officer was indicted only after Walker pleaded guilty.

“When we learn that officers are corrupt and we look backwards, it is so important to consider how the defendant would have handled that case differently, had they had access to that misconduct information and been able to expose it,” Levi said. “That is why we work so hard to have police misconduct information provided at the inception of each case. And we hope the legislature adopts changes to this effect this current session.”

Hankard pleaded not guilty. His trial has not yet been scheduled.

The allegations against him trace back to events in 2014 — two years before the case against Walker.

Hankard and other officers arrested Walker in April 2016 and charged him with 11 counts of drug possession, distribution and paraphernalia charges. He pleaded guilty to one count of possession with the intent to distribute heroin and received a suspended sentence and probation.

Three years later, state prosecutors asked the courts to throw out his guilty plea.

“In support of the motion, the State contended that it had acquired new information about Detective Robert Hankard, the submitting officer in Mr. Walker’s case, that called into question the integrity of Mr. Walker’s conviction,” the Court of Special Appeals judges wrote.

Baltimore Circuit Judge Melissa Phinn denied their request. Phinn said she did not find reason to believe Hankard had compromised the case simply because he submitted the evidence.

“Because the police report didn’t say anything about Detective Hankard recovering the drugs underlying Mr. Walker’s case, the court assumed that he would not have been a necessary witness, and from there that his misconduct in ‘no way impacted [the] integrity of the case,’” according to the Court of Special Appeals opinion.

Typically, the courts and prosecutors throw out cases in which the compromised officer is a necessary witness to the prosecution, meaning the case couldn’t be brought without the compromised officer.

The Court of Special Appeals, however, went further with Walker’s case. They deemed Hankard’s role, however small, was enough to compromise the case.

“The State isn’t saying that Mr. Walker is innocent of the crimes, but instead that it no longer can defend the integrity of the body of evidence underlying that conviction,” the judges wrote in their opinion.

They ordered the Baltimore Circuit Court to reconsider the request by prosecutors and public defenders to wipe out Walker’s conviction.

“I am encouraged the Court of Special Appeals recognizes the importance of vacating convictions that are the result of corrupt police officers,” State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said. “As prosecutors, our mission is justice over convictions, and we remain committed to that pursuit.”

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