Maryland Law Professor Douglas Colbert on the defense closing arguments in the Gun Trace Task Force trial. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Federal prosecutors told jurors Wednesday that the Gun Trace Task Force corruption case is about “equal justice for all,” and asked them to convict two Baltimore police detectives who believed they were “above the law” and victimized people they believed were “beneath the law.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Hines pointed to the government’s final witness, a young detective who testified that he rejected a proposition to join the group in their crimes.
“At some point during the career of these two men, they were given that exact same opportunity to make that choice,” Hines said. “But they did not.”
Six members of the task force have pleaded guilty to federal charges that include racketeering, robbery and firearms violations. Detectives Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor are fighting the charges.
Hersl’s attorney said the government had failed to prove the bulk of the specific accusations against his client.
Hersl acknowledged taking money in two cases, attorney William Purpura said, but should not be charged with federal crimes.
“Look, after 17 years as a street cop, his conduct was wrong,” Purpura told jurors. “It is totally up to you to decipher what exactly that conduct was.”
Closing arguments in the case began Wednesday in U.S. District Court with the government and Purpura each making their cases, and is set to continue Thursday with Taylor’s presentation. Jury deliberations will follow.
The officers, who have been detained since their arrests last March, face maximum sentences of life in prison.
Federal prosecutors called more than 30 witnesses during the trial, including officers who have admitted their roles in brazen robberies and drug dealers given immunity to testify that officers took cash and kilograms of drugs from them.
The evidence depicted a dysfunctional police department in which officers confidently lied in official paperwork and in court to cover their tracks without fear of repercussions.
Hines said the prosecution “isn’t a case against all police.”
“It’s a case against a group of criminals who happened to hide behind a badge,” he said.
He displayed pictures of victims, all African American men, who testified during the trial that they had had sums from a couple hundred dollars to almost $200,000 taken from them. Hines said the men believed no one would listen to them.
“You did,” he told jurors. “No man is above the law, and no man is beneath the law.”
Some of the officers who have pleaded guilty and took the stand admitted to committing crimes dating back to 2008. Much of the case focused on the Gun Trace Task Force’s sergeant, Wayne Jenkins, who the convicted officers said had an insatiable appetite to hunt down those he called “monsters” — drug dealers with large amounts of cash. They said Jenkins regularly encouraged illegal police tactics such as driving fast at large groups of young men to see who would run, profiling certain types of vehicles, and making unjustified stops and searches.
One officer said Jenkins encouraged them to carry BB guns to plant on people; a BB gun was recovered from Taylor’s vehicle. The officers said they put in for thousands of dollars in unworked overtime pay, starting their shifts late and claiming to work hours when they were at home or even on vacation.
“The evidence shows these men were not working hard to rid the city of guns — they were hardly working,” Hines said.
Purpura said Hersl was an outsider in the Gun Trace Task Force. Jenkins worked with a squad of officers — Taylor, Maurice Ward and Evodio Hendrix — in another unit, and brought them with him to the gun task force in June 2016. Two other officers, Jemell Rayam and Momodu Gondo, had worked together since 2010.
Jenkins, Ward, Hendrix, Rayam, Gondo and another officer, Sgt. Thomas Allers, have pleaded guilty in the case.
Gondo testified that Allers, the unit’s sergeant before Jenkins, told him not to trust Hersl, as they stole money together and kept it from Hersl. Purpura highlighted a wiretapped call on which Gondo and Rayam can be heard discussing whether Hersl was an informant. Gondo testified that the remark was a joke because Hersl had so many complaints against him that he was an unlikely informant.
“He was banned from the whole Eastern District based on complaints,” Gondo said.
Purpura said jurors had submitted questions during the trial about whether investigators checked Hersl’s bank accounts and if he was making loan payments on a new car. An FBI special agent testified that no large amounts of cash, nor drugs nor stolen items, were found in Hersl’s home or vehicles. Hersl’s bank accounts and those relatives showed no unusual activity.
Though the defense elicited testimony that overtime fraud was “rampant amongst the aggressive police squads” and was “acknowledged up the chain of command with a wink and a nod,” investigators didn’t conduct surveillance or present cell phone tower location data to show Hersl wasn’t at work on dates for which he is accused of collecting unearned overtime.
“If they had it, they’d have given it to you,” Purpura said to jurors.
Prosecutors played a recording from a device placed inside Gondo’s police vehicle, from a night when the officers chased someone and failed to render aid when a crash occurred. Hersl can be heard laughing and saying the officers can alter their time sheets to show that they weren’t working.
“You saw how these guys were wiling to do whatever it took to lie, cheat or steal, over and over and over,” Hines said.
Purpura said the audio was “ugly,” but “nothing which advances the ball on extortion and/or robbery.”
In three cases that predated Hersl’s work on the gun unit, prosecutors called victims who said money was taken from them. Hersl was one of several officers involved in each case, and the defense called officers from two of those cases who are not accused of wrongdoing and said they hadn’t seen anything taken.
The biggest case Hersl in which is accused of taking part occurred in July 2016, when officers from the unit used an illegal GPS tracker to chart the movements of a suspected drug dealer, then pulled him and his wife over in Baltimore County. The man was found with nothing illegal, but told the officers he had large amounts of cash at his home in Carroll County. The officers found $20,000 in a closet, took it before local authorities arrived on the scene, and split it up later at a bar. Officers testified that Hersl was among the officers who divided up the money.
Purpura noted that Hersl was not directly involved in the surveillance and preparing a search warrant, and was initially paired up with another officer from the unit, John Clewell, who is not charged in the case because he did not participate in the unit’s robberies.
Receiving the money later is “classic, classic receiving stolen goods,” Purpura said, not robbery, which involves taking money from someone with force or threat of force.