Police hearing for Sewell under way

Officer is accused of planting evidence

November 02, 2001|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Police Department moved yesterday to put one of its biggest embarrassments of the past year behind it by launching proceedings to fire an officer accused of planting evidence on an innocent man.

The disciplinary hearing is the latest chapter in a saga that included the indictment of Officer Brian L. Sewell on criminal corruption charges, a break-in at a secret police internal affairs office, city prosecutors' decision to drop the case against Sewell and a high-profile clash between Mayor Martin O'Malley and State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy.

At the time of Sewell's indictment, Police Commissioner Edward T. Norris called the officer's alleged actions a "horrible breach of the public trust," and Sean R. Malone, the department's chief legal counsel, echoed that theme yesterday. Sewell's integrity "has forever been tarnished," Malone said, and the officer should be found guilty of misconduct charges, an action that would lead to his dismissal by Norris.

But a lawyer for Sewell, who is a seven-year veteran, argued at the hearing that Sewell had done nothing wrong and "made a mistake of the heart, not of the mind."

The lawyer, Michael E. Davey, also said that Sewell was the victim of city officials who are eager to see the officer prosecuted and punished.

Testimony before the three-member board of police officials also revealed that the internal sting that preceded the planting of fake drugs on an 18-year-old man was flawed and unorganized.

The sting began about 9 a.m. Sept. 4, 2000. Internal affairs officers testified that they planted fake drugs - small packets of soap - on a bench in a park at Presstman and Madison streets in the city's central police district.

Then they called city dispatchers to report anonymously that a man wearing a white tank top T-shirt and yellow sweat pants had left some drugs at a park bench near Presstman Street, the internal affairs officers testified.

Sewell responded but could not find the drugs. Two other officers showed up, and one of them found the bag of what appeared to be drugs and took it away, the internal affairs officers said.

Malone said that Sewell then responded to a burglary call a few blocks away. There, Sewell stopped Frederick L. McCoy, then 18, as he was leaving a vacant home and charged him with burglary. He also charged him with possessing the bag found earlier at the park, saying in charging documents that he saw McCoy "placing a clear plastic bag into a crack of a park bench."

But testimony from the internal affairs officers, Sgt. Kelvin D. Sewell (no relation to Brian Sewell) and Officer Liza J. Hoover, also showed that they did not follow basic departmental procedures in the sting operation - including the use of a video recorder, taking detailed notes and following up quickly after the sting operation. It also took them and another internal affairs officer, Joseph P. Comma Jr., 10 days to track down what happened to the fake drugs.

The internal affairs officers' office was burglarized in December, about three months after Sewell was indicted on charges of criminal perjury and misconduct. City prosecutors dropped the charges in January, noting problems with evidence lost in the break-in and police witnesses who were suspects.

The primary investigator during the sting operation - Comma - has been charged in the burglary.

Despite those problems, Sewell will have to overcome the overriding fact in the case: He charged McCoy with possessing drugs that turned out to be fake.

But Davey argued that Brian Sewell saw a man matching McCoy's description leave the park that morning. Another officer who responded to the scene testified yesterday that Sewell told him in the park that he had seen someone run from the scene.

Hoover, the only internal affairs officer who was watching the park bench, said she never saw anyone in the park except for Sewell and the two other officers.

The hearing will continue today. If the board finds Sewell guilty, it will recommend a punishment. Norris, who can override the board's recommendation, is expected to fire Sewell.

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