Justice and life are lost in officers' indictments

November 20, 2006|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN REPORTER

Police and prosecutors could have put Stephon Wallace in prison for years, after they say he was caught with 18 baggies of crack cocaine last year. But the Baltimore state's attorney's office dropped the charges when the arresting officers got into trouble themselves - indicted in a corruption case that crippled a squad in the Southwestern District.

So instead of prison, Wallace - who was already on "double probation" for separate handgun and drug violations - was handed his freedom. Months later, police said, Wallace, a suspected member of a Bloods gang, fatally shot Sheldon Lee Anderson Jr. in the face on Edmondson Avenue.

For Baltimore law enforcement officials, the case illustrates the painful fallout felt for months, and even years, when a police corruption investigation taints officers, preventing them from testifying against suspected drug dealers and violent criminals and forcing prosecutors to throw out hundreds of cases.

Police corruption "affects everything, from A to Z," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. "It affects the way you investigate serious crimes. It affects public confidence. It affects recruiting of officers. It affects minor interactions of citizens and police. It gives aid and comfort to bad guys.

"That's why good cops really hate corruption," O'Donnell continued, "because it really makes their job difficult for a very long time."

The drug charges against Wallace were among more than 300 cases that city prosecutors said they had to dismiss this year because three police officers were charged in the alleged rape of a woman at the Southwestern District station house. Police and court documents say one officer forced the woman to have sex in exchange for releasing her from arrest as two others stood by.

The officers - Jemini Jones, Brian J. Shaffer and Steven P. Hatley - were members of a "flex squad," a specialized unit that targeted drug dealers and violent offenders.

Jones also has been indicted in the alleged rape of a second woman. The officers face trial in December.

In addition, police and prosecutors are investigating another squad of officers in the department's Special Enforcement Team, also a specialized unit, over allegations of planting evidence, stealing from suspects and lying in charging documents.

These cases against police pose problems because defense lawyers can use charges filed against officers to impeach their credibility on the witness stand.

"As prosecutors, our goal is to successfully prosecute to protect public safety," said Margaret T. Burns, a spokeswoman for the city state's attorney office. "However, when the credibility of an officer's testimony is jeopardized and a potential prosecution cannot be salvaged, our community faces the added burden of another public safety threat."

Matt Jablow, a Police Department spokesman, declined to comment.

According to court records, Wallace was arrested Aug. 31, 2004, in a police raid on a suspected drug stash house and charged with possessing heroin with intent to distribute. He was sentenced to five years' probation May 4, 2005.

But a month earlier, in April, he had been arrested and charged with illegal possession of a handgun. For that arrest, Wallace received on May 11, 2005 - just a week after he received his first sentence of probation -another three-year sentence, with nearly all of it suspended, plus two years' probation, court records show.

Such cases of "double probation" can sometimes happen when a judge doesn't know that another judge has imposed the penalty in another case. Judge John M. Glynn, who oversees the Circuit Court's criminal docket and chairs the city's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, said this typically occurs when the cases come up close together and paperwork doesn't get filed in time.

A subsequent arrest and conviction could have gotten Wallace a prison sentence for the new charge, and forced him to serve his suspended sentence. Such a scenario was looming for Wallace when he was arrested by Jones, Shaffer and Hatley on Aug. 9, 2005.

Charging documents show that the officers were watching Wallace outside a home in the 2700 block of Harlem Ave. when they saw him drop a suspicious package behind a grill and then try to push a blue cooler over it.

The officers interviewed Wallace, pushed the cooler away and found drugs, the charging document says. Wallace was arrested and the officers said they seized 18 bags of suspected crack cocaine.

Prosecutors dropped the case Jan. 31, more than three weeks after Jones, Shaffer and Hatley were indicted in the rape case.

Since the case was dismissed, Wallace's parole and probation agents also couldn't pursue a separate violation of probation hearing, which had been scheduled.

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