Jessamy pushes on lying by police

Prosecutor to vet officers for credibility on witness stand

Sun Follow-up

July 11, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

In a move that could force prosecutors to drop hundreds of cases, Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy has asked city police to give her files on officers who are being investigated for lying or other offenses that could damage their credibility on the witness stand.

In a letter to Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, Jessamy points to a case in which a detective continued to testify in criminal cases four years after the department began investigating him for deceiving emergency dispatchers in a domestic violence case.

Prosecutors learned that Detective Charles Hagee admitted to the deceit only after a judge ordered parts of his internal affairs file released to a defense attorney. This spring, Jessamy banned Hagee from testifying in any of her prosecutors' cases.

"We have to get information that could impact an officer's credibility sooner rather than later," Jessamy said in an interview. "Four years after an incident is far too long. And once I get this information, I will determine whether we're going to continue to use him as a witness, and I'm not going to wait for the Police Department to complete its internal process."

Michael E. Davey, an attorney for the city police union, said Jessamy is creating an "unfair" system to punish police that bypasses the department's internal affairs unit and puts officers' "livelihoods and careers" on the line.

"And she's going to be the judge," Davey said. "It's the state's attorney that's going to make that call? Not a judge and not an independent person or tribunal?"

Jessamy's request comes after years of concerns from defense attorneys about the effectiveness of the Police Department's Internal Investigations Division and whether prosecutors are fully disclosing evidence before trial that could challenge an officer's credibility.

This month, Maryland's highest court strengthened statewide disclosure rules, requiring prosecutors to turn over to defense lawyers evidence of an officer's prior untruthful conduct before trial.

"We can't disclose what we don't know about," Jessamy said.

Jessamy has already banned 15 current or former officers from testifying, according to a so-called "do not call" list obtained by The Sun. A ban is nearly equivalent to a suspension because the officer can no longer make arrests that would require testimony in court.

Jessamy banned four officers after her narcotics prosecutors conducted independent investigations and found evidence that the officers had falsified information in court records, even though some of those officers remain employed by the Police Department without sanction.

Jessamy outlined her new policy on police misconduct in two recent letters to Bealefeld, one of which, dated June 13, was obtained by The Sun.

Jessamy is asking the Police Department to immediately notify her of internal investigations into an officer's truthfulness.

Davey said that there are more than 3,000 complaints lodged against Baltimore police officers every year and that unresolved cases against some officers date as far back as 2005. Many of those are minor, and it's unclear how many involve issues of integrity, the ones of most interest to Jessamy.

Bealefeld declined to be interviewed for this article through his spokesman, Sterling Clifford, who said Bealefeld and Jessamy were in "regular contact" about "integrity issues and internal disciplinary procedures." He also said Bealefeld wants to speed up the internal affairs process.

"It's the Police Department's goal to make sure the state's attorney's office has the kind of case preparation they need to get convictions, and the commissioner is and remains committed to working with her," Clifford said.

Jessamy also has changed what kind of misconduct will get officers banned from testifying, adding a broad catch-all clause in her policy. According to a June 4 memo from Jessamy to A. Thomas Krehely Jr., chief of the state's attorney's police misconduct division, an officer who has "engaged in conduct that is so egregious that it undermines the due administration of justice" is at risk of being placed on the do-not-call list.

"What does that mean?" Davey asked. "That's not even defined."

Jessamy said the wording was intentionally broad.

"It's like pornography - you know it when you see it," she said.

Jessamy also is reducing the amount of evidence she needs to ban a police officer from testifying in her prosecutors' cases. Now, according to the memo, Jessamy will need only "clear and convincing evidence" of lying, rather than "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."

"These are hard concepts," said Bridget D. Shepherd, a chief attorney in the city public defender's office. "Essentially, the step below clear and convincing is that you're 51 percent sure. And the step above clear and convincing - beyond a reasonable doubt - is when you're 98 percent sure. So this is somewhere in between."

Shepherd said the new statewide disclosure rules require prosecutors to be more proactive, rather then profess ignorance.

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