Four years after he was shot in the neck by Baltimore Police during a traffic stop, 26-year-old Jawan Richards returned to a courtroom and watched prosecutors undo his conviction related to the encounter.
In the time since Richards’ guilty plea to assault and weapons charges, it was revealed that a secret surveillance plane had recorded the incident without the information being disclosed to police or prosecutors.
The footage appeared to corroborate everyone’s movements, but raised additional questions that would take shape after the officers involved were accused of misconduct: Over the past six months, Detectives Carmine Vignola and Robert Hankard, the officers who shot Richards, have faced federal charges of lying in other incidents. And the lead investigator of the shooting was charged with stealing overtime.
Richards’ case was one of nine more thrown out by prosecutors Monday in the fallout of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, in which members of a plainclothes police unit were convicted of robbing residents and lying in police reports. The continuing federal investigation of the GTTF led to the indictments of members of a second squad led by Sgt. Keith Gladstone, with Vignola and Hankard also charged with federal crimes. City prosecutors, meanwhile, have been throwing out hundreds of cases involving those officers and others implicated in the scandal.
Richards says he was startled by the officers and claims 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."
Through an attorney, Vignola “emphatically and unequivocally” denied any wrongdoing in connection with the shooting: “As with all police shootings, it was exhaustively investigated by a separate [unit] within BPD," said attorney Gary Proctor, who called the claims "pure bandwagonism.”
Vignola and Hankard shot Richards on Jan. 27, 2016, in Northwest Baltimore. The officers, along with two other partners, said they were driving in separate cars through the snowy street when they saw Richards without a seat belt and decided to pull him over. When they jumped out of unmarked cars, Richards reversed, striking the door of Hankard’s vehicle and bending it all the way back. The officers fired into Richards’ vehicle, and he was struck in the neck.
A passenger in the vehicle told investigators at the time that he saw the officers’ marked vests and police lights inside their vehicle, according to the investigative file. “They were saying, ‘Show your hands. Let me see your hands.’ Everything was a blur. I heard the shots and dove out of the car,” the friend said.
The surveillance plane flown by Persistent Surveillance Systems, then a secret to the public, was 8,500 feet in the air and captured the incident. The information wasn’t disclosed to prosecutors until the week after Richards had pleaded guilty and sentenced to 10 years, with all but six years suspended.
The Police Department is preparing to launch a pilot program using the plane, which is being funded by private philanthropists from Texas. Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has said the plane will be used for limited types of crimes, but not for police misconduct investigations. Public hearings about the pilot program are expected to begin later this month, a police spokeswoman said Monday.
Ross McNutt of Persistent Surveillance Systems said his analysts backtracked the movements of the vehicles involved in the January 2016 shooting, and that the officers had met on Garrison Boulevard and then left and headed toward the 3400 block of Piedmont Ave. “at almost the identical second that Mr. Richards left his location."
“There was very little interaction before the event occurred,” McNutt said in an interview. “Put yourself in his situation — two guys jump out of a car, what are you going to do? I probably would’ve done the exact same thing he did.”
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Ivan Bates, Richards’ defense attorney, was informed of the plane footage in 2016 after Richards’ plea but said the recent corruption indictments put the evidence in a new light. He wrote in a motion last month that the officers’ actions raised a question of whether Richards was being tracked by a GPS device without a warrant. Members of the Gun Trace Task Force admitted to using such trackers without warrants.
Carroll County prosecutors, who handled the investigation and Richards’ charges because of a conflict of interest within the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. Hankard’s attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment about the misconduct claim.
McNutt wrote in an affidavit that Baltimore Police officials at the time “indicated they were not interested in this information” and never requested additional information from the plane.
The case also calls into question the reliability of the plane’s observations. Carroll prosecutors said in 2016 that they did not believe the footage disputed the officers’ version of events, records show. Persistent Surveillance Systems’ report said Richards’ vehicle did not strike Hankard’s vehicle, but crime scene photos and witnesses affirmed that Richards did hit the open car door. On Monday, Richards acknowledged it as well.
Vignola pleaded guilty to lying to a federal grand jury about a BB gun-planting incident in 2014. Hankard has pleaded not guilty to lying about the same incident to the grand jury, as well as another incident in which police planted drugs to get a search warrant.
Robert Dohony, who was the lead Baltimore Police investigator on the shooting case, was charged in January with misconduct in office and theft for allegedly lying to prosecutors about overtime work. He has a trial tentatively scheduled for next week.
Richards said he is now fearful of police. “My nerves are bad,” he said after Monday’s hearing. “Every time I see police, I get away from them. That’s sad, because they’re supposed to protect us.”