Baltimore officer held as 'material witness' in gun case

Policewoman had failed to appear at trial

March 18, 2010|By Tricia Bishop |

A Baltimore police officer spent Monday night in a Central Booking cell after a Circuit Court judge issued a "material witness" warrant against the woman - at the request of the city state's attorney's office - when she didn't appear for a gun trial that afternoon.

"Without her testimony, we would not have been able to go forward," said Baltimore state's attorney's spokeswoman Margaret T. Burns.

The Southwestern District patrol officer, Victoria Reynolds, was on call Monday for a case against Kinte Johnson, 35, who was charged with being a felon illegally in possession of a handgun. Johnson was ultimately convicted.

But when the case went to trial, Reynolds, who is listed in court records by her unmarried name of Wingfield, couldn't be reached. She was at a firing range, and her personal cell phone had been cut off, leading Assistant State's Attorney Jason Knight to ask for the warrant with a "body attachment," meaning Reynolds would be taken into custody.

Police and others questioned whether the end justified the means.

"It's clear that the officer wasn't even needed for the trial in this case," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Though Reynolds testified for the prosecution during a motions hearing, she was called as a defense witness later on.

Guglielmi called the warrant an "extraordinary remedy."

Sheryl Goldstein, director of the Mayor's Office on Criminal Justice, said, "There were a number of different decision points here that would have led to a different outcome."

Goldstein was briefed on the situation Monday night, after it was too late to reverse it.

"What I hope is that we can all come together and make sure that nothing like this ever happens again," she said.

In a brief telephone interview Tuesday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale E. Rasin confirmed that she had issued the warrant Monday afternoon and that it had been carried out. She could not be reached Wednesday.

The problem arose about 2:45 p.m. Monday, when Knight told the judge he was having trouble locating Reynolds. He wanted her to testify at a hearing before the trial on a defense motion to suppress gun evidence.

"If she doesn't show, your case goes down the tubes," Rasin replied, according to a recording of the proceedings viewed by The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday.

She also noted some irony in the officer not showing because Baltimore police were "very adamant to get guns off the street and 'bad guys,' or whatever the vocabulary the commissioner uses."

Knight left the courtroom to make several calls, reaching out to Reynolds' colleagues and the firing range with no luck, according to the recording. He returned a half-hour later, saying his supervisor - Matthew Fraling, chief of the Firearms, Investigations, Violence and Enforcement Division - was arranging for a body attachment warrant if Rasin was willing to sign it.

After some back and forth, she said she was.

"It's the police officer who's kind of generated this problem," Rasin said. She issued the warrant with specific instructions for sheriffs to "take [Reynolds] into custody and take her to Central Booking, where she is held without bail until tomorrow. That's the consequence."

Reynolds, 36, was brought to court Tuesday morning, where Rasin stressed the importance of being available when on call and recapped the events that led to her decision to issue the warrant.

Reynolds spoke in a quiet voice, which broke several times, saying her phone had been shut off, and she thought she would be notified earlier in the day if she were needed.

Robert F. Cherry, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the issue could have been resolved with better communication, and he criticized Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy for allowing it to happen.

"The bottom line is we could have done a little bit more to track this officer down," he said. "I can't fathom or begin to think what it would be like for an officer ... to be put in a location with criminals. It's outrageous, and it's unthinkable."

The state's attorney's office stood by the decision.

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