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Baltimore prosecutors want greater flexibility to undo convictions after Gun Trace Task Force scandal

The Baltimore state’s attorney’s office told a state commission investigating the Police Department’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal that it wanted increased powers to undo tainted convictions, saying judges have blocked their efforts to overturn cases they could no longer stand behind.

City prosecutors continue to review more than 2,000 cases involving officers convicted of federal racketeering charges as well as others accused of misconduct by convicted officers. They’ve moved to overturn 150 of those cases, but in about 30 of them, judges blocked them on procedural grounds.

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Chief counsel Tony Gioia said that while a case was pending, prosecutors had absolute discretion to drop or continue pursuing it. But that changes once a conviction and sentence have been imposed, Gioia said.

“When we have such an exceptional circumstance like the Gun Trace Task Force, we should have the same discretion post-judgment as we do pre-judgment to deal with police misconduct,” Gioia told the commission in Annapolis.

“Some people are being treated fairly, and some people are not being treated fairly,” added Deputy State’s Attorney Janice Bledsoe.

The commission, with members appointed by Gov. Larry Hogan and leaders of the General Assembly, was created by the legislature last year to investigate the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, including its origins and ways to address the root causes.

Eight officers who worked on the elite gun unit were charged after a federal wiretap investigation with robbing citizens, lying on paperwork and conducting illegal searches. Some of the officers sold drugs they had taken off the street, while others admitted committing robberies stretching back several years.

Members of the prosecutors’ office on Monday defended the fact that they had not been aware of the officers’ criminal conduct before the indictments, saying the misdeeds far exceeded what was foreseeable to officials.

“One of the things I’m struggling with as a commission member: No one seems to want to say, ‘Yeah, we heard about these guys,’ and nobody wants to say, ‘We should’ve known’ … Where was the breakdown?” asked commission member Gary McLhinney.

Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Michael Schatzow noted that the federal investigation grew out of a drug case in which one of the officers was intercepted on a wiretap, instead of complaints.

“I think that’s an important fact in looking at this, because it’s not as if people in Baltimore City were asleep and the feds were investigating what we should’ve been investigating,” Schatzow said. “It would be hard to imagine that a sworn police officer would engage in [this type of conduct] once, let alone have that be the basis of a career. So, it’s difficult to contemplate.”

The prosecutors avoided specifics regarding questions that had been raised about the officers prior to the indictments. Schatzow mentioned an instance in 2015 when former Detective Jemell Rayam was deemed un-credible by a circuit judge.

“We certainly knew about that, the whole world knew that, and we reported that to” internal affairs, Schatzow said. But it was unclear what steps prosecutors took to address Rayam’s credibility problem as he continued working in the elite unit.

City prosecutors do not maintain a “do not call” list of problem officers that effectively forces the Police Department to take them off the streets. Former State’s Attorney Patricia Jessamy maintained such a list, which was abolished by her successor, Gregg Bernstein. While progressive district attorneys across the country have been implementing what Jessamy had in place a decade ago, State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s administration says it continues to consider the proposal.

“I can assure you that once that information is reported,” Schatzow told the commission, “it is dealt with very seriously.”

In the meantime, prosecutors say they are working more closely with police to review allegations and case files, and provide documents to defense attorneys seeking to use them to impeach the credibility of officers. The public defender’s office has said the process continues to come up short.

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Bledsoe said prosecutors have looked at about 4,000 internal affairs files.

“The criminal justice system in Baltimore is in trouble,” Schatzow said. “It is not trusted by the community because it’s not perceived to be fair and just. And it won’t be perceived to be fair and just until it becomes fair and just, and it won’t be fair and just until everyone working in it … are working in a transparent way to bring about justice.”

For their part, Schatzow said, city prosecutors “feel as though we’ve been doing that.”

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