City drops corruption charges

Office break-in hurt case against officer, prosecutor says

Key evidence stolen

Police linked to sting are investigated for possible burglary tie

January 25, 2001|By Peter Hermann and Caitlin Francke | Peter Hermann and Caitlin Francke,SUN STAFF

Prosecutors dropped a high-profile corruption case against a Baltimore police officer yesterday, saying it was compromised by a mysterious Christmas Eve burglary at a police office where key evidence was stolen.

Officer Brian L. Sewell, a six-year veteran assigned to the Central District, had been charged with perjury and misconduct after police said he falsely charged a citizen with drug possession. He was the first officer caught in an undercover sting run by the department's Integrity Unit out of a secret office in Essex.

Sewell's lawyer, Henry L. Belsky, said his client "is very relieved that the case is being dropped. However, that doesn't satisfy him. They should never have brought this case for prosecution."

Another of Sewell's lawyers, Kimberly A. Alley, said: "We believe he is innocent."

The case crumbled, prosecutors said yesterday, because testimony from officers who investigated Sewell is tainted because they are suspects in the break-in.

They also said that as many as 11 photos taken by undercover detectives during the sting Sept. 4 remain missing.

State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's reasons for dropping the case contradict statements from top city officials, including Mayor Martin O'Malley. He assured residents at a news conference earlier this month that the burglary did not compromise the Sewell case because prosecutors had eyewitness testimony.

Jessamy said that because the burglary investigation is focusing on members of the Integrity Unit - confirmed over the past several weeks by top police officials - "our witness credibility in this matter has been called into question."

She said that while her office "believes that Officer Sewell committed the crimes for which he is charged," her office could not "prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Commissioner Edward T. Norris held a news conference the day Sewell was arrested, Oct. 4, using the case to prove he was serious about targeting corruption. He called Sewell's alleged misconduct "a horrible breach of the public trust."

Yesterday, his office issued a brief statement.

"We are extremely disappointed in the State's Attorney's decision not to move forward with this case, but defer to their judgment in doing so," the statement says.

Jessamy's decision, the statement says, "will certainly not deter the efforts of the Baltimore Police Department in its commitment to root out corrupt police officers and to restore the integrity of the agency."

Norris said that Sewell will remain suspended without pay and that administrative misconduct charges will be filed. If convicted by a departmental trial board, the officer could be fired.

The arrest of Sewell struck a nerve in high-crime areas of the city, where many residents complained that officers routinely plant evidence against drug suspects. To them, the officer's arrest proved their worst suspicions.

Norris established the Integrity Unit as part of the Internal Affairs Division last year to conduct undercover stings against officers to ensure their credibility. In Sewell's case, Integrity Unit detectives planted a bag of cocaine on a park bench on Presstman Street and called in a fake report to communications.

Sewell was dispatched to the scene. Detectives said they secretly photographed him picking up the drugs. Sewell then responded to a nearby burglary complaint, and prosecutors said he charged the suspected burglar with possessing the drugs he had picked up from the bench.

Sewell wrote in his offense report that he saw the man "placing a clear plastic bag into a crack of park bench."

The case against Sewell was thrown into doubt two months later, on Dec. 31, when the Integrity Unit's office was burglarized, with several case files rifled or stolen. Much of the material was recovered the next day from a trash bin behind a doughnut shop in eastern Baltimore County.

No arrests have been made in the case. Norris has since shaken up the Integrity Unit and replaced several officers after he said at least two did not perform satisfactorily on polygraph tests.

Investigators have said they do not have a motive for the break-in and do not know whether someone was trying to compromise a particular case or if it was done by a disgruntled employee.

Police and prosecutors have repeatedly said that the Sewell case remained viable, even after the break-in.

But it became clear yesterday that key evidence is still missing. That includes the approximately 24 photographs of Sewell taken by undercover detectives, as well as the negatives of those pictures. Prosecutors have copies of 13 pictures, but have never seen the other 11, and they are now missing.

Belsky, in a court motion seeking to dismiss the case that had been scheduled to be heard Monday in Circuit Court, argued that the missing photographs could help exonerate Sewell because they show "other individuals at the park location where the drugs were planted."

The court papers add: "Now that the Internal Affairs file is missing, the defendant does not have the opportunity to review and present such evidence."

Belsky also had filed court papers alleging prosecutorial misconduct against Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth A. Ritter.

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