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‘The only good thing about this I see is that I’m still living’: Baltimore approves more than $10 million in GTTF settlements

Brent Matthews and Umar Burley, shown here leaving federal court with their attorney Steve Silverman after a judge agreed to vacate their convictions in a case where prosecutors say drugs were planted on them by crooked Baltimore police officers.
Brent Matthews and Umar Burley, shown here leaving federal court with their attorney Steve Silverman after a judge agreed to vacate their convictions in a case where prosecutors say drugs were planted on them by crooked Baltimore police officers. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Umar Burley was in no celebratory mood Wednesday as Baltimore officials formally approved a historic settlement over police officers planting drugs on him in 2010.

Since his release from prison in 2017 after federal prosecutors cleared his name, Burley said he’s struggled with post-traumatic stress, has been unable to work and struggled to obtain benefits. He wishes the city had done anything to help him in the period while his case was winding through the courts, such as hiring him to clean city buildings.

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“The only good thing about this I see is that I’m still living,” he said wearily in a phone interview.

Burley’s remarks underscore the scars of police misconduct as the city’s Board of Estimates approved more than $10 million in new settlements related to the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.

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The city in recent weeks has settled 24 claims that were approved by the Board of Estimates, totaling more than $13 million. The cases included $1 million to a man who was shot by one of the Gun Trace Task Force officers in 2007, and another $850,000 to a man who was shot by other officers in 2016. Both plaintiffs served prison time.

The largest of those settlements by far — almost $8 million — went to Burley and his friend Brent Matthews, who both went to federal prison for drugs that were planted in their vehicle in 2010. That amount eclipses the settlement paid to the family of Freddie Gray in 2015.

“While these settlements resolve a financial burden for victims and their families, the work of rebuilding and, in many cases, building trust between our communities and BPD is far from over,” Mayor-Elect Brandon Scott said in a statement. “The settlements approved today mark the closing of a chapter, but the beginning of a long process of building an accountable, constitutionally-operating police force and reimagining what public safety can look like in Baltimore.”

Burley was in his vehicle with Matthews as a passenger when Wayne Jenkins, Sean Suiter and a third officer tried to box in the car, saying they’d seen a drug transaction. Burley, who says he did not know the men were officers, sped off and collided with another vehicle, killing 86-year-old Elbert Davis and injuring his 81-year-old wife.

The settlement includes the city taking responsibility for a civil judgment Burley owes to Davis’ family that was imposed in 2014 and has since grown with interest as it went unpaid.

Burley served seven years in prison after the 2010 drug-planting incident and also was convicted of manslaughter in state court, while Matthews served two-and-a-half years in prison.

Their attorney, Steve Silverman, said Burley was released with “nothing but the shirt on his back.” Burley described that experience: “Where do I go? What do I for a living, for eating?”

He praised his attorneys for helping him while the litigation was pending.

“It’s a long time coming,” Burley said of the settlement.

Silverman lamented last week that it took “several unfavorable court rulings against the City of Baltimore to bend its arm,” but that attorneys handling the case were “pleased that the city has finally stepped up and negotiated a historic and impactful resolution of this litigation.”

Burley said he plans to move out of the city, hopefully to a home in the mountains where he can rebuild himself as a person, “try to get a sense of life back."

Burley and Matthews’ lawsuit, like others filed in the fallout of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, alleged not just that the police officers wrongfully arrested them, but that the city knew of misconduct by the officers and others and failed to stop it. Officers who cooperated with the government in the federal prosecution said they stole money and falsified evidence for years, with little fear of getting caught. A suburban drug investigation — not a Baltimore police internal affairs complaint — ultimately brought them down.

More than a dozen officers have been charged and convicted in federal court, and hundreds of criminal cases brought by the officers have been dropped or vacated.

Jenkins, who would go on to lead the Gun Trace Task Force, pleaded guilty to civil rights violations for participating in the coverup, though he insists he did not plant the drugs. He is serving 25 years in prison for crimes including robberies and selling drugs.

Suiter was fatally shot in the head the day before he was to testify in front of a grand jury about the incident — his death has been ruled a homicide but questions have been raised about whether he committed suicide.

Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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