Lack of trust in police a too-familiar pattern

October 29, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

Do Baltimoreans trust our Police Department?

That's fast becoming a "Can a rattlesnake dropkick a football?" question in this town. It was more than a month ago that Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph P. McCurdy asked a grand jury to look into "the lack of confidence that exists between many members of the public and law enforcement," according to a story by Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz.

On Thursday, Akiba Matthews walked out of Baltimore Circuit Court free as a jaybird, acquitted of all charges that he possessed drugs with the intention of distributing them. Matthews has been identified as the cameraman of the infamous Stop Snitching DVD.

For those of you not familiar with the DVD, a brief reminder is in order. It's a video in which assorted criminals rant against and threaten "rats" -- criminals who get caught by the cops and snitch on other criminals in order to cut deals for lighter sentences.

It is not -- repeat NOT -- a video that threatens all witnesses to crimes.

That being said, it's clear that the Stop Snitching DVD is far from being a promo for clean, law-abiding living. Both police and prosecutors were alarmed when it hit the streets.

Cops arrested Matthews in March and claimed he had $3,500 worth of heroin and cocaine in his bedroom. He went to court this week. Matthews' attorney, Gary F. Stern, argued that police targeted his client not because he was guilty, but because of his connection to the DVD.

Apparently Stern's argument carried the day. Did those jurors acquit Matthews because they don't trust police? Stern doesn't think so.

"The jury expects police officers to come in and tell them the complete truth," Stern said yesterday. The attorney alleged that police who testified made contradictory statements and even contradicted one another.

"The whole investigation was started by the DVD," Stern continued. The jury, he said, was mixed in terms of economic class. And, he said, there were 10 women on the jury and two black men. Two of the women were white.

"It was a good cross section," Stern said of the jury. "If the police had come in and told a straight story, [Matthews] would have been convicted."

Joseph Sviatko, a spokesman for the state's attorney's office, wasn't sure why the jury acquitted Matthews.

"Nobody talked to the jury afterwards," Sviatko said. "We really don't know."

Matt Jablow, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, had no clue about the jurors' motives.

"I can't read the jury's mind," Jablow said. "I don't know what they were thinking. We were very disappointed with the verdict. We feel it was a very strong case."

Jablow also disputed Stern's claim that officers made contradictory and untruthful statements.

"The primary investigator in this case is one of the best and most honest drug cops we have," Jablow said. "I would dispute those allegations vigorously."

But Matthews' arrest history -- which was provided by Sviatko -- indicates that he has a string of prior arrests. Three drug cases in the last four years stand out.

One case was put on the STET docket after he performed 50 hours of community service while serving a sentence for violation of probation. A second case was dismissed when the arresting officer failed to appear in court.

The third was placed on the STET docket after Matthews signed a release saying he wouldn't sue the department for "injuries I received as a result of my arrest," according to a letter Sviatko said Matthews signed in February 2004.

Doesn't this story get better and better?

Sviatko said the case "involved an internal affairs complaint about allegations of injuries received." Reading between the lines, it sounds like the cops might have roughed Matthews up a bit. Let's look at the full text of Matthews' letter.

"I, Akiba Matthews, do hereby waive any and all actions I may have had, may now have, or may have, either civilly or criminally against and of the officers and or the Baltimore City Police Department, with regard to injuries I received as a result of my arrest on criminal case, case No. 803037028."

The charge in that case was also the possession and distribution of drugs.

He got off this time due to either a perspicacious jury or one that doesn't trust cops, depending on whom you believe. We can all avoid a third time for Matthews (and there will be one, looking at his rap sheet).

Isn't there someone who will pay this guy to get out of Baltimore permanently?

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