|Former Officers Thomas Liciardello [left] and Michael Spicer|
U.S. District Court Judge Eduardo C. Robreno let former Philadelphia Police Officer Michael Spicer out of jail this afternoon, setting bail at $175,000.
In a second bail hearing, Robreno adjourned court after two hours of arguments. The judge wanted to give himself some time overnight to ponder whether he should also let out of jail Officer Thomas Liciardello, the man the feds say is the alleged ringleader of a band of rogue cops.
Federal prosecutors have charged six former members of the city's Narcotics Field Unit in a 26-count racketeering indictment with stealing more than $500,000 in cash, drugs and personal property, while allegedly using excessive force, kidnapping drug dealers and falsifying police reports to cover their tracks.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey has already waved the white flag, calling the allegations "one of the worst cases of corruption I have ever heard." Ramsey suspended all six cops for 30 days, with the intention of firing them. He also announced at a press conference that he plans on destroying the former cops' badges. How's that for a presumption of innocence?
Not to be outdone, U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger wanted to see the six former cops held in jail without bail until trial because they supposedly were flight risks and posed a danger to the community.
But five of the six former officers are now out on bail, and the judge was considering whether to let the sixth officer out of jail. Meanwhile, today in court a couple of defense lawyers sounded pretty cocky about the chances of their guys beating the rap when the government's much ballyhooed police corruption case finally comes to trial.
They haven't picked a jury yet, but the veteran criminal defense lawyer was feeling bold enough to make a prediction about the outcome of the case.
"Vindication," Binns told the judge. "He [Spicer] will leave your courtroom not guilty of any crime."
Jeffrey Miller, who represented Liciardello, said he wasn't usually in the business of making guarantees, but he too was feeling optimistic about his client's chances of beating the rap.
"I certainly have that expectation," Miller told the judge.
It's a curious case with many of the accusations dating back eight years. There is also no wiretap evidence to buttress the charges, according to the buzz in the defense bar, as well as no drugs or money seized from any of the defendants.
Both Liciardello and Spicer had filed appeals to Robreno after their applications for bail had been denied by a federal magistrate judge assigned to the case.
A big determining factor regarding bail for the accused cops was whether they did indeed pose a threat to the community, their lawyers conceded. Since the accused cops no longer carry badges and guns and no longer wear uniforms, they're no longer a threat to anybody, Binns argued. The defendants couldn't possibly duplicate their crimes now that they're no longer cops, Binns said.
The prosecutor, however, argued that Spicer was a violent guy who had struck a drug dealer in the mouth with a sledgehammer, knocking out his teeth. Binns countered that the prosecutor was embellishing the facts of the case. The federal indictment only accused Spicer of punching a drug dealer in the mouth, knocking out his teeth.
"He had a fist fight with a guy he was arresting," Binns said. It happens every day in my neighborhood.
As to whether his client was a flight risk, Binns said "this thing's been under investigation for six years. He [Spicer] could have left a long time ago."
While the government called Spicer a rogue cop, Binns said his client up until his arrest was a "man of impeccable reputation" for his 19-year career as a cop. He was also a "devoted father" of four kids ages 5 to 17, and a "good husband," his lawyer said.
Binns argued against excessive bail, saying his client and his family were "people of modest means." Spicer's wife was a homemaker, Binns said. Since Spicer lost his job and landed in jail, his family has been "living in abject poverty," Binns said.
The judge set bail at $175,000, settling for a lien on real estate.
Like Spicer, Liciardello was a "highly decorated" cop for 18 years, his lawyer said. Liciardello is married and has two children. His father was a cop, so was an uncle. His wife is still a cop, Miller said.
"He's got roots in the community, he's got a home," Miller said, even though that home was now in foreclosure.
"His son is a sensational baseball player" who hopes to play professional ball, Miller said. Liciardello was a "wonderful family man" and a "good father."
"He's loud, he can be pushy, but he's not violent," Miller said of his client. He poses no danger to the community. The defense lawyer told the judge about a petition circulated in the last few days in support of his client that was signed by 150 friends, neighbors and co-workers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek, however, told the judge that more important than the 150 people who signed that petition in support of Liciardello were the 20 witnesses who appeared before a grand jury and testified about the alleged abuses perpetrated by the cops. Those alleged abuses included kidnappings, threats if violence and excessive use of force.
The prosecutor talked about one drug dealer who claimed he was on his knees, with his hands on top of his head when Liciardello whacked him with a pistol, "cracking open his head."
The corrupt cops, the prosecutor told the judge, had a game going amongst themselves. Which ever cop inflicted the most pain "scores the most points," the prosecutor claimed.
The prosecutor called FBI Special Agent Antony Balestrieri to the witness stand to testify about the federal investigation of the Philly narcotics cops.
The FBI agent described how the cops were so callous in their treatment of suspects that when they wanted information out of one drug dealer in handcuffs, namely the code to his palm pilot, they dangled him over a balcony 18 stories high until he gave up the code.
The FBI agent claimed that Liciardello allegedly threatened a lawyer for one of the drug dealers by saying, "I'm surprised you're alive," and "I'll be there when you die."
The agent also claimed that Liciardello told the wife of a drug dealer who had recently changed her hair style that she looked better as a blonde than a brunette. This was taken as a threat by the wife, who thought it showed that Liciardello had been following her, the FBI agent claimed on the witness stand.
Liciardello also allegedly told the wife of the drug dealer that "she would lose her house, her kids would be taken away from her, and the dog would be shot," the FBI agent claimed.
But on cross examination, the FBI agent was asked if all the accusations against the cops had come from drug dealers.
"That would be a fair statement," the agent replied.
Miller argued that one drug dealer who claimed he was kidnapped by the cops was actually being "put on ice" until a drug bust went down. During his alleged kidnapping, Miller told the judge, the cops took the drug dealer to a bar, where they drank beer and ate pizza.
Miller also claimed the lawyer that Liciardello allegedly threatened was a habitual advocate for drug dealers. "He's the drug dealers' go-to guy," Miller said. The drug dealers' lawyer was always harassing the cops with frivolous lawsuits, Miller said. The cops finally retaliated by successfully suing the lawyer for wrongful use of civil proceedings, Miller said.
Miller also argued that the wife of the drug dealer who felt threatened had recently changed her haircut, and had been followed by the cops. His client was only telling the truth, the lawyer said. So there was no witness intimidation.
The prosecutor continued to argue that Liciardello belonged in jail because of his dominant role in the alleged crime wave.
"He certainly is the leader of the officers," the prosecutor said.
But defense lawyer Miller agued that during police raids that Liciardello was involved in, a lieutenant and a captain participated in the raids. So how could his client be the leader when he was outranked by superiors? And how could all these lawless acts happen under the noses of supervisors?
Miller argued that going up against the government in a racketeering indictment was tough enough, but that it was impossible for him to prepare a defense while his client was locked up in solitary confinement. He's been on the case for just a week and a half, Miller said, and he hasn't been able to talk to his client yet. A detective he hired also has not been able to talk to Liciardello, Miller complained.
All the other defendants are out on bail, Miller argued; his client should be too.
But the judge adjourned court until tomorrow, saying he need some time to think it over.
Update: On Wednesday, Judge Robreno denied bail to Liciardello, ruling that he was the "de facto leader" of the alleged rogue cops, and that he could pose a danger to the community.
According to the Philadelphia Daily News, as he left the courtroom, Liciardello mouthed to his wife, Selena, also a Philadelphia police officer, "Stay strong." But she was later seen crying outside the courtroom.