Two city officers convicted of misconduct in kidnapping case

Baltimore's top prosecutor says 'citizens deserve more'

May 02, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

A city jury found two city police officers guilty of misconduct Monday but cleared them of kidnapping charges in the first case tried by Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein.

After nearly two weeks of testimony, jurors took about three hours to reach the verdict. Detectives Tyrone S. Francis and Milton Smith III were convicted of two counts each of misconduct — a misdemeanor — for picking up two 15-year-olds from West Baltimore in May 2009 and leaving them stranded far from their homes.

The third officer charged in the case, Gregory Hellen, will have his fate decided by the judge overseeing the case, Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory.

"We're very pleased with the jury's verdict, which we believe reflects a real careful consideration of the evidence and their view of the nature of misconduct," said Bernstein, who said he was limited in his comments because Hellen's case is pending.

Defense attorneys for Francis and Smith immediately said they would file a motion arguing that the jury was given improper instructions, resulting in a misconduct verdict that was "inconsistent," given that officers were acquitted of felony kidnapping, false imprisonment and assault charges.

"We think the verdict should not stand," said Smith's attorney, Kenneth Ravenell.

Prosecutors said the officers were working overtime near the Gilmore Homes housing complex when they picked up Shawnquin Woodland early in the evening of May 4, 2009. The officers were accused of driving him to a dangerous corner in East Baltimore, and pushing him out of the van while saying, "Thanks for the information."

When the officers later returned to their patrol area, prosecutors say they picked up Michael Johnson Jr. and left him at Patapsco Valley State Park. It was raining, and a Howard County police officer who responded to the boy's call to 911 for help testified he found the teen with no shoes, socks or cellphone.

Bernstein told jurors in closing arguments that the officers "crossed the line and broke the law" trying to assert their authority and teach the teens a lesson.

"The fact that they are police officers does not excuse their conduct," Bernstein said. "The citizens of Baltimore deserve more."

Defense attorneys said that the officers were "doing their jobs" and trying to get information from the teens about a violent drug organization. The investigation of the case, they said, was shoddy and driven by public pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"This web [of lies] began as a pebble and ended as a boulder," Francis' defense attorney, Michael Belsky, told jurors Monday. "My client has no business being here."

Both teens were lying about the circumstances of their encounters with the police, the defense argued. Johnson initially told the 911 dispatcher that he had been beaten up by police, which he acknowledged during the trial was not true, and he said his cellphone had been snapped in half. The phone introduced as evidence was intact.

Johnson also claimed that though he had been driven around for hours, there was no conversation with the officers. "Does that even make sense to you?" Ravenell asked the jury. "They had him in a van, driving a circuitous route, and nothing is happening?"

Using slide show presentations on 55-inch television monitors, Ravenell and Belsky outlined inconsistencies in the witness statements, and noted that Johnson is pursuing a $100 million civil lawsuit against the officers.

The attorneys concluded that it defied logic that the highly regarded officers "appeared one day and became rogue detectives."

But Bernstein suggested it might not be the first time the officers were involved in such an incident. "We're saying this time they got caught, because these brave young men had the courage to come forward," he said.

The detectives could point to no evidence obtained from the teens during the time they were driven away from their homes, prosecutors said. They did not tell their supervisors they were leaving the area, nor did they fill out any forms documenting the interaction. Juveniles cannot be interviewed without parental consent, Assistant State's Attorney Michelle Martin said.

"The defense cannot have it both ways," Martin said.

Bernstein's decision to try the case — the first time the city's top prosecutor has personally argued a case in at least 15 years — brought heightened attention to an unusual trial: the detectives were tried jointly, though the jury was to hand down a verdict for only two of them.

After the verdict, Bernstein spoke to the teenagers and their families, congratulating them on a "terrific job," as the officers and their supporters milled around at far end of the hallway.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton



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