Defense attorneys for a pair of city police officers accused of kidnapping two West Baltimore teenagers nearly two years ago contended Wednesday that the boys concocted the story to avoid being branded neighborhood "snitches."
That version of the incident — that officers Milton G. Smith III, Tyrone S. Francis and Gregory Hellen were simply gathering sensitive information from residents on violent offenders and high-level drug dealers as part of the elite Violent Crimes Impact Division — differed greatly from the one offered by Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein, who said the officers took the teens because the officers believed themselves "above the law they swore to honor and uphold."
"The defendants didn't feel these victims showed an adequate amount of respect," Bernstein said Wednesday in his opening statement to jurors.
One of the teens, Michael B. Johnson, has claimed in a civil lawsuit against the officers that he was in the 1600 block of N. Gilmor St. on May 4, 2009, when the officers forced him into an unmarked police van, hit him with a nightstick and threw his cellphone out the window before dropping him off at a state park in Howard County without his shoes and socks.
The second teen, Shawnquin Woodland, testified Wednesday that the officers stopped near him in an unmarked blue police van, handcuffed him and drove him across town to East Baltimore.
But Francis' attorney, Michael Belsky, argued the kidnapping story was the result of "two young men who took a legitimate encounter with police and embellished it."
Belsky said the teens had told police they had information on an investigation that the officers were conducting. The men took the two out of West Baltimore, Belsky said, because it is standard practice to speak to informants away from their neighborhoods, so they are not recognized as having cooperated with police and being branded "snitches," a potentially deadly label in high-crime areas.
"What you do is try to get information and balance it in a way that's safe for the person," Belsky said.
For about two hours on Wednesday, attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell, representing Smith, cross-examined Woodland, pointing out several discrepancies between his first statements to investigators and his testimony in court. For example, Woodland testified Wednesday that Smith was the officer who first approached him, but he apparently told police in the weeks after the incident that Francis was the one who had approached him.
"Basically what we have here is your memory, and your memory might not be all that good," Ravenell said.
Woodland replied: "Right."
As for Johnson, Belsky contended that he "got into that van on his own" while Woodland watched, and that Francis drove onto the highway to allow more time for the officers to talk with Johnson. After Francis missed an exit for the Cherry Hill neighborhood, he decided the most direct route back to West Baltimore would be U.S. 40. Francis, Belsky said, was told that Johnson wanted to get out sooner, so he let him off in a wooded area in Howard County.
Francis "did not see any violence or hear any threats," Belsky said. "That's what happened."
A. Dwight Pettit, who is representing Johnson in a $100 million civil suit against the officers and was present for part of the opening statements, said outside the courthouse that Johnson had been "minding his business" when the officers picked him up.
Pettit added that he knew nothing about the claim that the boys were police informants.
"That's my first time hearing it," he said.
Attorney David Irwin is representing Hellen in the case before Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory, who will decide Hellen's fate in the unusual simultaneous bench and jury trial. Woodland is set to continue his testimony Thursday.