Evidence in sting may be missing

Files in conduct case gone after break-in in Essex, officials say

Officer pleads not guilty

January 12, 2001|By Caitlin Francke and Peter Hermann | Caitlin Francke and Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore prosecutors revealed yesterday that evidence in the misconduct case against a city police officer may be missing after a burglary of a Police Department office, posing questions about the viability of the case.

The disclosure came at a hearing during which Officer Brian L. Sewell, 31, pleaded not guilty to perjury and criminal misconduct charges. He is accused of planting evidence on a man and falsely arresting him in a sting operation designed to root out corrupt officers.

This is the first confirmation that Sewell's case may have been compromised by the Christmas Eve break-in of a secret Internal Affairs Division office in Essex. He is scheduled to stand trial Feb. 5.

"It casts a lot of suspicion as to the state's case simply because the file is no longer intact," said Kimberly A. Alley, one of Sewell's attorneys. "We're very disturbed about the missing evidence because we believe there is evidence there that would prove [Sewell's] innocence."

The missing evidence includes a folder containing 13 pictures of the sting operation that were in a file in the Internal Affairs office. In addition, more photographs - which had not been turned over to prosecutors or defense attorneys - are gone.

Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter said the missing evidence does not hamstring the case.

"We're still prepared to go forward," she said.

Most of the files and other items stolen from the Internal Affairs office were recovered by a man who stumbled upon them in a trash bin behind a doughnut shop on Eastern Avenue. Ritter said an inventory of the recovered items is being conducted to determine whether the missing photographs are among the found items.

More complications remain in the case, which police Commissioner Edward T. Norris wanted to hold up as a showcase for ridding the department of bad officers. Police suspect that the break-in may have been done by a fellow officer.

Defense lawyers maintain that the state has not been forthcoming with evidence, such as the additional photos that are missing, and will probably seek to dismiss the case because of violations of rules concerning the exchange of evidence, known as discovery.

Yesterday, Ritter told them that some police documents were shredded during the investigation and tapes of radio communications had parts missing when they were given to them.

"What evidence has been destroyed that would prove my client's innocence? We don't know that," said Henry Belsky, another Sewell attorney.

Ritter said in court that she did not know about the additional photos taken by investigators during the sting operation until three days ago. She also said she had just discovered that the tapes of the radio communications given to the defense had some parts "omitted" and pledged to give the defense the unaltered version.

Sean Malone, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, said that officers should have turned everything over to Ritter from the start but that the investigators were acting in "good faith."

He said the missing photographs that were not given to Ritter - or to the defense - were different versions of a photo that was turned over.

The "omissions" on the tape of radio communications given to the defense were occurred because the original recording did not capture all the radio channels used during the undercover sting. Once a more complete tape was found, it was turned over, Malone said.

The shredded documents were an early attempt at a courtroom exhibit that was deemed unusable. "The Baltimore Police Department did not shred any evidence," Malone said.

Sewell, a six-year veteran assigned to the Central District, was arrested Oct. 4. after being indicted on charges stemming from the September sting operation.

For the operation, Internal Affairs detectives placed a plastic bag containing seven bags of crack cocaine on a park bench in the 400 block of Presstman St. and then called police to report it.

Police allege an officer picked up the drugs from the bench and then responded to a burglary call in the 1900 block of McCulloh St., two blocks away. A man in the suspected burglary was arrested and then the drug charge was added on, police said.

Sewell wrote in his report that he saw the man place the drugs on the bench and then run away when a police cruiser pulled up.

"Based on my training and expertise, as well as over 600 narcotic arrests this officer has made in my 7 years as a Baltimore City police officer, I believed Mr. McCoy was selling and in possession of a controlled dangerous substance," Sewell wrote in his report.

As a result of the charges, prosecutors decided to drop several drug cases in which Sewell was the main arresting officer because his testimony was tainted.

Malone said police are confident that the case against Sewell is not compromised.

"We have police officers who are eyewitnesses to this case," he said. "We have a wrongly accused defendant who I gather will testify the drugs weren't his. We have a police officer who wrote a report that says the drugs are his."

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