Unusual judge-jury trial set for 3 officers

Second effort to separate trials rejected

April 15, 2011|By Yeganeh June Torbati, The Baltimore Sun

In an unusual move, the cases of three city officers accused of kidnapping two West Baltimore teens will be heard jointly by a jury beginning next week, though the panel will decide the fate of only two of them.

Charges against the third will be decided by Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory, though the cases will be heard simultaneously. Friday's decision by Doory came over the protests of defense attorneys, who had argued that such a move would create a legal mine field. The arguments were part of a second attempt to have the cases heard separately.

The cases of Tyrone S. Francis and Milton G. Smith III will be decided by a jury, while that of Gregory Hellen will be decided by Doory.

Defense attorneys for the three officers, accused of taking West Baltimore teens Sean Quinn Woodland and Michael B. Johnson from their neighborhood in an unmarked police van two years ago, argued Friday that a joint trial would be unfair to the defendants and confusing for the jury.

The lawyers lost a previous argument Thursday to have the three men tried separately on the charges, and their split requests for judge and jury trials appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to separate the three cases.

"I don't know how we expect the jury to ignore a trial that is occurring before them in a courtroom," said Kenneth W. Ravenell, Smith's attorney. Growing exasperated at times, Ravenell said, "Judge, this becomes a total cluster."

The attorneys also referred to past decisions handed down by higher courts that "strongly disapprove" of bench and jury trials being held simultaneously.

"There's going to be all sorts of land mines that the court is going to have to dodge," said David B. Irwin, who represents Hellen. Irwin said the granting of the request was a "once-in-a-decade occurrence."

Tackling his first case in the courtroom since taking office in January, Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein said the defense was "engaging, quite frankly, in gamesmanship to keep the cases separate."

Bernstein added, "While unusual, while the court needs to be careful, [a joint bench and jury trial] is not prohibited and it can be done."

Doory acknowledged that a joint trial for the three men could get messy, and warned Bernstein that some evidence against the three men may be excluded because of the unusual arrangement. That, Bernstein indicated, was a risk he was willing to take in order to try the three police officers together.

Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor, said he believes Hellen, who is white, requested a bench trial because he may be concerned about the jury's perception of police.

"I'm thinking the reason he asked for a [bench] trial was because of this fear of a primarily African-American jury, viewing alleged criminal conduct of a police officer who was white against victims who were African-American," Warnken said.

The officers are accused of taking Woodland from his neighborhood on May 4, 2009, and dropping him off across town in East Baltimore. Later that evening, the officers allegedly detained Johnson, a friend of Woodland's, and are accused of driving him to a state park in Howard County, where they left him without his shoes, socks and cellphone.

Few further details about the incidents have come out during the pretrial motions, although Irwin has strongly implied that the evidence will show his client, Hellen, is less culpable for the night's events than the other two defendants.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Tuesday.

jtorbati@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jtorbati

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