By George Anastasia
Were they cops who bent the rules or criminals who broke the law?
That's the only question that matters for a federal court jury that began deliberations this afternoon in the corruption trial of six former Philadelphia Police Department narcotics officers.
The jury, primarily middle class suburban residents, got the case shortly after noon following a detailed two-hour explanation of the laws that applied to the case by Judge Eduardo Robreno. The judge's charge capped a six-week trial that included days of conflicting testimony from drug dealers (the prosecution's key witnesses) and law enforcement officials (called by the defense). The jury also got two days of highly charged and often vitriolic closing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
The six former members of the Police Department's Narcotics Field Unit are charged in a 26-count indictment with stealing more than $500,000 in cash, drugs and other valuables from narcotics dealers they had targeted and with fabricating police reports and arrest records to cover their crimes.
One of the defendants, veteran police officer Michael Spicer, testified for the defense. The other defendants are Thomas Liciardello, Brian Reynolds, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman and John Speiser.
Liciardello, the lead defendant, has been described by the prosecution as the officer calling the shots in what the government contends was a rogue unit. The 38-year-old son of a former police captain is the only defendant being held without bail. He has been in jail since the indictment came down back in July.
The prosecution has alleged that the defendants became bandits with badges, trampling on the rights of targeted drug dealers while pocking cash, drugs and jewelry during high profile arrests. The defense has conceded that the defendants were tough and sometimes abrasive as they worked the drug underworld, but the lawyers said again and again that was standard operating procedure. The six Narcotics Field Unit members were part of the front line in the war on drugs, they told the jury.
The jury deliberated for about four hours today. The panel will be back tomorrow at 9 a.m. to take up the case. The jurors began their deliberations by asking for a complete list of exhibits and evidence. Toward the end of the afternoon the panel sent out two notes asking for documents related to the last two counts in the indictment.
Count 26 was the only count that focused specifically on Speiser. In that count he is accused to falsifying a police report. He, like all six defendants, is also named in Count One which is the overarching racketeering charge at the heart of the case.
Count 25 dealt with a false report allegedly filed by Betts.
The questions led to speculation about the jury's deliberation process. Was the panel starting with the least significant defendants? Speiser was hardly mentioned at all by the government's witnesses and Betts' name was also seldom heard. Or was the panel starting from the back of the indictment and working forward, a process that would make a decision on Court One easier?
Speculation about jury deliberations is just that -- speculation. It's like trying to handicap a horse race.
Some of the defense camp have argued that a quick verdict, by tomorrow for example, would bode well for the defense. Other observers have predicted that simply based on the number of defendants and the number of counts, deliberations will spill into next week. The panel will not be held over this weekend because one member has a child graduating from college. But Judge Robreno has indicated that should deliberations continue through next week he will consider having the jurors work on Saturday and Sunday.
"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," said one member of the defense camp who believes the lawyers in the case did a good job deconstructing the government's theory and undermining the credibility of the prosecution's witnesses.
Those in the prosecution camp had little to say, but appeared upbeat as deliberations began.
George Anastasia can be reached at George@bigtrial.net.