Baltimore’s spending board is being asked to approve a nearly $8 million settlement to two men who served federal prison time after having drugs planted on them in 2010, a case unearthed through the Gun Trace Task Force corruption investigation.
The settlement for Umar Burley and Brent Matthews is the largest yet to be approved in recent weeks for claims related to the GTTF case, and even eclipses the amount paid to the family of Freddie Gray in 2015.
That and five other cases set to go before the city’s Board of Estimates Wednesday, according to a law department memo, bring the amount of taxpayer money spent on settling Gun Trace Task Force claims to more than $13 million, following the settlement of 18 previous cases in recent weeks.
“We believe these settlements to be in the best interest of both the city and the plaintiffs who may have been harmed by the misconduct of former GTTF members,” says a memo from the law department.
Steve Silverman, an attorney for Burley and Matthews, said it “took several unfavorable court rulings against the City of Baltimore to bend its arm," but they were “pleased that the city has finally stepped up and negotiated a historic and impactful resolution of this litigation."
“Mr. Burley and Mr. Matthews were overtly and undeniably framed by a conspiracy of at least four police officers,” Silverman said. “It should not take an army of lawyers litigating for years to right wrongs like this."
Among the additional cases is $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.
City Solicitor Dana Moore said the city would litigate remaining claims. It was not clear how many cases remain pending.
Burley and Matthews' lawsuit, like others filed in the GTTF fallout, alleged not just that the officers wrongfully arrested the men, 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 an internal affairs complaint — ultimately brought them down.
More than a dozen officers have been charged and convicted, and hundreds of criminal cases brought by the officers have been dropped or vacated.
Burley served seven years in prison after the 2010 drug-planting incident. Gun Trace Task Force leader Sgt. Wayne Jenkins pleaded guilty to civil rights violations related to the case, for participating in the coverup, though he insists he did not plant the drugs.
Jenkins and Detectives Sean Suiter and Ryan Guinn were watching Burley and Matthews and said at the time that they believed they saw the two men conducting a drug transaction. The officers, in unmarked vehicles and wearing plainclothes, moved in and Burley took off at a high rate of speed.
He collided with another vehicle, killing 86-year-old Elbert Davis and injuring his 81-year-old wife.
Jenkins' report said that Suiter found heroin inside Burley’s vehicle. After the Gun Trace Task Force indictment, cooperating officers told federal investigators that Jenkins had spoken of drugs being planted in the incident.
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. Guinn testified before the grand jury, providing his account of the incident, and was not charged with wrongdoing. Jenkins is serving 25 years after pleading guilty to an array of crimes including robberies, falsifying evidence, re-selling drugs that he took from people, and stealing overtime.
Burley was convicted on federal drug charges but also state manslaughter charges. Matthews served two-and-a-half years in federal prison on drug charges. Their convictions were vacated in 2017.
Silverman, the plaintiffs' attorney, said Burley was released from prison “with only the shirt on his back.”
“No housing, no job, no services, nothing to assimilate back into the community after years of wrongful incarceration,” Silverman said.
The $8 million settlement includes the city taking over a civil judgment that Burley owed the family of Elbert Davis, who died in the crash. Burley was ordered to pay $1 million, which has accumulated interest since Burley was unable to pay the amount.
“BPD has agreed to assume the judgment held by the Judgment Plaintiffs against Burley for full face amount of the Judgment plus post-judgment interest,” the agreement reads.
The Davis family has filed their own lawsuit against the city, which was not among the settlements set to go before the Board of Estimates.
“Baltimore City and its corrupt police department has refused to accept any responsibility for its role in causing the death of Elbert Davis, Sr. and the serious injuries to Phosa Cain,” said John Solter, one of the family’s attorneys. "The fact that the city has elected to ignore these innocent victims and instead compensate the man who contributed to this terrible incident only adds insult to injury. It’s truly disgraceful and it shows that nothing has changed in Baltimore City.”
The $1 million settlement for Bernard Gough relates to a 2007 incident in which he was shot by Det. Jemell Rayam, who pleaded guilty in the Gun Trace Task Force case and is serving 12 years in prison. Rayam was not charged in relation to shooting Gough, which was one of three shootings by Rayam that occurred in a 20-month span between 2007 and 2009.
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Gough’s lawsuit said that Rayam wrongly accosted him after the officer had received a report of a stolen vehicle. Gough tried to flee, and Rayam fired one shot that went into his neck and through his mouth, blowing out his teeth, damaging his voice box, shattering his jaw and requiring a tracheotomy.
Police said at the time that Gough dragged Rayam with his vehicle.
His defense attorney “pointed out to the State’s Attorney’s Office the glaring flaws of the State’s case,” but Gough took a plea deal for 18 months in jail in order to avoid a possible felony conviction, according to his lawsuit.
An $850,000 settlement was reached with Jawan Richards, who was shot by Detectives Carmine Vignola and Robert Hankard in 2016. Neither officer was in the Gun Trace Task Force, but they were both charged in the fallout of the investigation as federal investigators pursued other leads.
Vignola pleaded guilty to lying to a federal grand jury about a 2014 incident in which a BB gun was planted on a man and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, while Hankard is pending trial on multiple accusations of misconduct.
Richards was shot in the neck after officers tried to pull him over for not wearing a seatbelt. The incident was captured by the surveillance plane during its trial run when it was not disclosed to the public — the footage also wasn’t disclosed to prosecutors until the week after Richards pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Richards told The Sun this year that he was startled by the officers and he claimed that a gun found under his driver’s seat was not there before he was shot. Of the conviction being overturned years later, he said: “It’s crazy. That’s God, right there.”