BALTIMORE (AP) — Federal prosecutors and lawyers for one of two Baltimore detectives fighting racketeering and robbery charges have made their closing arguments as a trial winds down in one of the worst U.S. police corruption scandals in recent memory.
The high-profile case is not in the hands of a jury quite yet. Defense attorneys for a second detective who has pleaded not guilty will deliver their final arguments later Thursday, and government prosecutors are set for a rebuttal.
Over the past 2 ½ weeks, the jury trial has been dominated by testimony from disgraced ex-detectives who have pleaded guilty to a slew of corruption charges and are cooperating with federal authorities in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences.
They have provided jaw-dropping revelations about their time on a disbanded police unit called the Gun Trace Task Force, an elite Baltimore police squad that was once praised as a group of hard-charging detectives chipping away at the tide of illegal guns on city streets.
But from the stand Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, four former detectives have testified that the unit was actually made up of uniformed thugs who broke into homes, stole cash, resold looted narcotics and lied under oath to cover their tracks.
Wearing lockup jumpsuits, the ex-detectives have admitted to everything from armed home invasions to staging fictitious crime scenes and routinely defrauding their department. Derek Hines, one of the two assistant U.S. attorneys prosecuting the eight indicted Baltimore officers in the task force, reminded jurors Wednesday that nobody is above the law.
“This isn’t a case against all police. It is a case against a group of criminals who happened to hide behind a badge,” Hines said during closing arguments. Detective Daniel Hersl’s lead defense attorney, William Purpura, is not denying that his 48-year-old client took money — which he described as an act that “embarrassed” the city and the detective’s family — but that it didn’t rise to charges of robbery or extortion.
He attacked the veracity of the four disgraced detectives who testified for the government, noting that they’ve admitted to lying for years to juries, judges, law enforcement colleagues, and their families.
“They want that ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” Purpura quipped, referring to a feature of the Monopoly board game. Six out of eight indicted Baltimore detectives have pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal and four have testified for the government. The trial is for Hersl and Detective Marcus Taylor, who have pleaded not guilty.
In mid-November, a Philadelphia police officer became the ninth law enforcement agent indicted in the federal investigation. Prosecutors allege he conspired with task force member Jemell Rayam to sell heroin and cocaine seized in Baltimore.
Even public defenders, who often question the testimony of police, are shocked by the sordid revelations exposed at the trial, saying there could be a few thousand tainted cases stretching back to 2008. So far, roughly 125 cases involving the eight indicted Baltimore law enforcers have been dropped.
“This was an ongoing criminal enterprise for many years,” said Debbie Katz Levi, head of special litigation for Baltimore’s Office of the Public Defender. “We don’t believe that that this was merely a rogue unit, but rather a symbol of a flawed culture in need of serious reform.”
The ongoing federal investigation centered on the Gun Trace Task Force speaks to a dark side of police authority in Baltimore at a delicate time for the beleaguered department. A monitoring team is overseeing court-ordered reforms as part of a federal consent decree reached between Baltimore and the U.S. Justice Department due to discriminatory and unconstitutional policing. The mid-Atlantic city is also fresh off a new annual per-capita homicide record as the starkly divided city had 343 killings in 2017, roughly 56 killings per 100,000 people.