Tuesday, April 28, 2015
One defense witness said he considers the ongoing police corruption trial a "kangaroo court" and that he can't wait until the six defendants are "set free."
Another called Thomas Liciardello, the lead defendant in the corruption case, an "outstanding investigator" and a "dedicated" police officer "committed to removing narcotics and guns" from the streets of Philadelphia.
Several others contradicted key bits of testimony from drug dealers called by the prosecution earlier in the trial.
That was the scene today in U.S. District Court as the defense called a parade of witnesses in the ongoing racketeering trial of six narcotics officers.
Was it a question of brothers in blue circling the wagons in an us-against-them standoff? Or was it, as defense attorneys claim, the other side of the story, the side that federal prosecutors and FBI agents made no attempt to document as the case was built against Liciardello and five other members of the Philadelphia Police Department's Narcotics Field Unit?
The fifth week of the trial opened with a verbal barrage aimed at the prosecution's case. Testimony from nearly a dozen members of the Police Department, including several supervisors, was designed to contradict and undermine the linchpins of the criminal indictment.
It was the Roshomon effect, Philadelphia style. Same story. But told from a decidedly different perspective and with a clearly different spin.
For four weeks the jury has heard tales of planted evidence, stolen cash and drugs and falsified police reports flowing from the witness stand as a dozen admitted drug dealers and one dirty cop have testified for the prosecution. Their testimony has supported the racketeering indictment that alleges that the six rogue cops stole more than $500,000 in cash, drugs and other valuables and then filed phony reports to cover their tracks.
The defense, which started presenting its case on Friday, has offered witness after witness to refute those claims. Today it was more of the same.
Last week, Rodolfo Blanco told the jury that he was not, as police claimed, a heroin dealer. He also said that heroin and a loaded AK 47 assault rifle that police said they found in his home during a raid were planted and that $12,000 confiscated during that raid was cash from the sale of a van. He also claimed he was held hostage for four days in a hotel and forced to set up drug dealers who were subsequently arrested. Finally, he said, police reported confiscating $5,960, not $12,000, in the raid.
Today Lt. Charles Jackson, who said he was on the scene when police raided Blanco's barbershop and apartment in the 4600 block Frankford Avenue, said of Blanco, "He had drugs. He had money and he had the gun." He also said the van that Blanco claimed to have sold, was parked behind the apartment.
Jackson scoffed at the idea that a police raiding party would carry an assault rifle into an apartment and plant it there. He also said Blanco had agreed to cooperate and that the plan to hold him at a hotel was approved by supervisors and part of a legitimate drug investigation.
"Was he taken hostage?" defense attorney Jack McMahon asked at one point.
"Absolutely not," Jackson replied.
Also last week Theodore Carobine described how police had broken down his door and swarmed through his apartment in the 9400 block of Kirkwood Drive. Carobine testified that he was not a drug dealer; that meth allegedly found in his apartment had been planted, and that police took $11,000 out of his safe but listed only $8,000 in an arrest report. The cash, Carobine said, was savings set aside to pay his daughter's nursing school tuition.
Carobine, a plumber, said he spent five weeks in jail, but that the charges against him were thrown out of court when a judge agreed with his defense attorney's challenge of the search warrant. He said he is currently suing the city and the police department.
But today Lt. Thomas Wixted, who said he was on the scene for the raid, testified that all the cash taken from the safe was immediately placed in an evidence bag and sealed and that he maintained control of that bag. He also said that when Carobine was shown a Ziploc bag containing meth that was found in his bedroom, he broke down and cried, telling police, "I fucked up. You guys got me. I'm selling that to put my daughter through nursing school."
Testimony throughout the day continued along those lines. Several witnesses contradicted the testimony of drug dealers who said Liciardello and other members of the unit showed up on raids dressed in black and wearing ski masks and did not immediately identify themselves as police.
No one ever wore a mask, several witnesses said today. And during any raid, everyone wore bullet-proof vests clearly labeled POLICE.
The testimony led to some heated cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek.
The prosecutor challenged Jackson on his selective memory after the lieutenant said he could not remember how police got into Blanco's apartment and how many people were present. Blanco said his wife and five children were there when police, waving guns, busted down the door.
After Wzorek pointed to several other vague recollections, Jackson said, "Do I remember every detail? No. What I do remember is the AK47, $5,960 in cash and 260 grams heroin recovered inside that location."
Wzorek also clashed with Wixted, getting the lieutenant to acknowledge that Carobine's statement -- Wzorek called it a "confession" -- was never mentioned in any police report and that the first time he told anyone about it was when he was questioned by the FBI earlier this year.
Wixted said he thought the statement "wasn't needed" because the evidence seized that day was so strong. He also said Carobine had not been "Mirandized" (read his rights about self-incrimination) and for that reason the statement would not have been admissible.
Police officer Sean O'Malley also testified that he heard Carobine make the same statement on the day of the raid. O'Malley and Wzorek clashed continually during cross-examination.
A 14-year veteran of the narcotics unit, O'Malley described Liciardello as "probably the best narcotics officer I've ever worked with. He's abrasive, but very good at what he does."
Conversely, he said Jeffrey Walker, a member of the squad who has pleaded guilty to robbing a drug dealer and who has testified for the prosecution, "was the opposite. Very lazy (and) couldn't do a job on his own."
Wzorek asked O'Malley if he had called the trial a kangaroo court on a Facebook posting in which he also wrote that he "can't wait to see the defendants set free."
"Yes sir," O'Malley said, adding, "I don't want to see innocent people go to the jail."
"Neither do I," said Wzorek.
The prosecutor then questioned O'Malley in detail about a statement he had given the FBI in which O'Malley described Liciardello as loud, abrasive and cocky. He also was asked if he had told agents that Liciardello would threaten drug dealers by telling them their children would be taken away from them and that female members of their family would be arrested and would be abused in prison.
O'Malley conceded making those statements but insisted that Wzorek was distorting the issue and missing the point. The prosecutor asked if O'Malley had said Liciardello would tell dealers "their wives and daughters would get fucked while they (the drug dealers) were in prison?"
"Not their daughters," O'Malley said, adding that "You got to understand. He was trying to give them (the drug dealers) something to think about" as they were being asked to cooperate.
At another point, when the prosecutor was hammering away at O'Malley's inability to remember details, the police officer said he was being asked about events that had happened six years ago and "I don't remember every single detail of every investigation."
Then he shot a look at the prosecutor and asked, "What time did you brush your teeth this morning?"
Wzorek asked Judge Eduardo Robreno to instruct the witness to answer, and not ask, questions. But before he posed another query, the prosecutor said, "It was 5:30."
The animosity building between the prosecution team and the police defense witnesses is expected to continue and perhaps peak tomorrow when Sgt. Joseph McCloskey, who supervised the six defendants, continues his testimony.
McCloskey was on the stand for about 40 minutes today and was questioned primarily about police procedures. The prosecution has portrayed him as a "don't ask, don't tell" supervisor who allowed Liciardello to run the squad. It was part of an overall institutional approach that rewarded results regardless of how they were obtained, the government contends.
Supervisors looked the other way, the government has alleged, because Liciardello and his squad members had a high arrest rate and confiscated significant quantities of drugs and cash. The prosecution contends that some of those drugs were put back on the street and some of the cash ended up in the pockets of the officers making those cases.
McCloskey, described by O'Malley as a no nonsense, by the book, boss, is expected to refute those contentions.
Asked this afternoon to describe Liciardello, the veteran police sergeant said, "Tommy Liciardello is an outstanding investigator and police officer. I don't think I've ever met a police officer more dedicated to removing narcotics and guns" from the streets of Philadelphia.
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.