On the witness stand, Baltimore Police Detective Sharod Watson was clear: He’d seen the defendant, Isadore White, on the same Southwest Baltimore block “on a daily basis” for 18 months before witnessing him make a drug sale there and chasing him into a nearby “stash house.”
“Just about every day?” asked John Cox, White’s defense attorney.
“Yes, sir,” Watson said.
White, 20, was charged with possessing a bag of heroin capsules he’d allegedly tossed during the chase, as well as possessing drugs and a gun found in the house on South Calhoun Street that he allegedly used as the base of his drug operation.
The detective’s testimony went to the core of the state’s case, helping to establish White’s link to the address over time.
But it wasn’t true. White was actually in jail for a year of the 18 months in question, awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge that was later dropped.
Confronted with that information, Watson acknowledged his testimony was “factually impossible.”
“Watson lied to you!” Cox bellowed later to the jury. “Unequivocally, bald-faced lied.”
The jury deliberated less than an hour before acquitting White of all charges.
Watson gave that false testimony Dec. 1. Seven weeks later, he remains on the job. He has continued to make arrests as part of the Southern District’s “action team,” one of the special squads Police Commissioner Kevin Davis created last year after he disbanded the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force following the indictment of its members on federal racketeering charges.
T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said the Police Department learned of Watson’s testimony only when a Baltimore Sun reporter asked about it Jan. 11.
The Police Department has since launched an investigation, Smith said, declining further comment while the review is underway.
Watson declined to comment.
Meanwhile, prosecutors have continued to list Watson as a witness in other criminal cases. The state’s attorney’s office began to notify defense lawyers about his testimony in White’s case only in the past week, according to the Baltimore public defender’s office. Prosecutors are still planning to argue in court next month that, despite the false testimony and acquittal, White’s arrest violated his probation in a 2015 robbery case.
The prosecutor in White’s case reported the problem with Watson’s testimony to the state’s attorney’s Police Integrity Unit on Dec. 11, according to Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. That prompted an internal review of the testimony and “the circumstances surrounding” it, which is ongoing, Saunders said.
She declined to answer questions about why the prosecutor, Laura Sambataro, waited 10 days to alert the Police Integrity Unit and would not make Sambataro available to answer questions. Saunders also said the state’s attorney’s office had notified the Police Department about the testimony, but could not say when and offered no details.
Deborah Levi, director of special litigation for the Baltimore public defender’s office, said the incident is the latest example of a Baltimore police officer showing a lack of credibility on the witness stand, and of police and prosecutors’ failure to prevent and disclose such testimony.
Levi and other members of the local defense bar have raised the issue for months, saying state privacy laws protecting police personnel records allow city officers to act with impunity on and off the witness stand, while those with access to personnel files and an obligation to prevent abuses don’t always notify defense attorneys as they should.
Even when officers prove themselves to be dishonest in one case, critics say, often nothing is done to prevent them from continuing to take the stand in others.
Cox, a former prosecutor under former Baltimore State’s Attorney Pat Jessamy, said there was a “do not call” list for prosecutors during his time that would prevent police officers with known credibility issues from continuing to testify against defendants. No such list exists today.
“Now everyone gets recycled back onto the stand, and it’s at the peril of potential defendants,” Cox said, calling the current process “infuriating.”
Levi agrees. “To us, there has to be a better system in place to identify misconduct and disclose misconduct so that none of this gets lost in the cracks,” she said. “Prosecutors, as ministers of justice, have to align themselves with doing the right thing more than getting the win.”
Saunders said that while the state’s attorney’s office doesn’t have a “do not call list,” officers who “present credibility concerns” are put into an “internal notification system.” Prosecutors are instructed to contact the Police Integrity Unit to discuss any officer on the list before calling the officer as a witness, Saunders said.
The impact of those conversations is unclear.
Watson was already in the notification system before White’s case, Saunders confirmed. He also has an Internal Affairs file with at least two complaints logged against him, according to court records, but the contents of those files are not public.
Levi said her office is now asking for a full review of Watson’s files.
Others outside the defense bar also are concerned about the process for handling police Internal Affairs files in court. Levi said a meeting has been scheduled next week among judges, prosecutors, police and public defenders to discuss the matter.
A judiciary spokesman said the meeting “is to bring together all members involved with processing cases that involve Internal Affairs files in order to see if there is a way to streamline the process and make it more efficient,” but that it “would be inappropriate ahead of the meeting to speculate on what the outcome will be.”
Smith, the police spokesman, said the department is launching a program to better track officers with high arrest rates but low conviction rates to determine if the disparity has to do with the legitimacy of the police work.
Baltimore City Solicitor Andre Davis — a former federal judge who has castigated police from the bench for “implausible” testimony — said his office, too, is reviewing how allegations of misconduct by police are handled when they surface during criminal cases, and the procedures for turning over police personnel files when they are requested by defense lawyers.
While prosecutors are traditionally responsible for reviewing the files and turning over any relevant material, Davis said “it has not gone smoothly” in Baltimore.
“I’m not sure why it hasn't worked,” he said. “It’s really very simple.”
Davis said the city’s consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice mandates that Baltimore handle police misconduct appropriately. He said he has spoken briefly with Mosby about setting up a process for having prosecutors refer incidents of misconduct to his office so it can launch internal investigations.
Davis said Watson’s testimony, which he was informed of by The Baltimore Sun, could be “the final trigger to get this going.”
Watson took the stand on the last day of White’s trial, with Sambataro, who works in the state’s attorney’s Major Investigations Unit, walking him through the arrest.
They discussed how the “stash house” worked — “You could run in real quick, grab a pack [of drugs] and run right back out the back door,” Watson said — and how the drugs found inside were the same as those White had allegedly tossed: a heroin-fentanyl mix called “Purple Rain” packaged in unusual purple-topped capsules.
Watson told Sambataro that he saw White on the block “pretty much on a daily basis.”
Cox took him through the testimony again.
“How often did you see my client?” the defense attorney asked.
“On a daily basis,” Watson said.
Cox: “And for how long a period of time? For two years are we talking, about?”
Watson: “About a year and a half.”
Cox, counting the months on his hands: “So, from February ’15 to July of ’16, you saw him basically every day?”
Cox asked Watson twice more about his observations of White, and twice got the same answer. He asked Watson if it was possible that he might not have seen White for months on end.
“No, no, no, no,” the detective replied.
Cox asked for a break, and the jury left the courtroom. Cox informed Judge Philip Jackson of White’s previous incarceration, and asked for the opportunity to call Watson out on the falsehood. He asked to show the detective documents indicating White was behind bars before the jury returned, as the jury wasn’t privy to White’s prior criminal record.
Once the jury returned, Cox asked Watson if he agreed, based on the documents he’d been shown during the break, that his previous testimony was “factually impossible.”
Watson said he did.
Sambataro then questioned the detective once more.
She asked Watson to explain why he may have been “mistaken.” Watson said he is “familiar with a lot of people in the neighborhood” and doesn’t “keep an actual log” of his encounters with them.
In closing remarks, Cox told the jury that the prosecutor could try to “put lipstick on a pig,” but “it’s still a pig.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.