|Perry Betts hugs daughter Samantha; Photo: Michael Bryant/The Inquirer|
It was a complete repudiation of the government's racketeering case against six former narcotics officers.
Forty-seven times, the jury foreman today announced a verdict on forty-seven charges contained in twenty-six separate counts. Forty-seven times, the jury foreman said, "Not Guilty."
When the jury foreman sat down, there was a roar of approval from courtroom spectators that could be heard out in the hallway. After a ten-month legal ordeal, all six defendants were getting ready to walk out of the federal courthouse as free men, after their electronic ankle bracelets were removed.
The last defendant to leave was former Officer Thomas Liciardello, who has spent the past ten months in solitary confinement while the other defendants were out on bail.
After the verdict, Liciardello and the other defendants literally stopped traffic out on Market Street while supporters, including FOP President John McNesby, pulled over in trucks and SUVs, to honk their horns in solidarity.
"I just want to thank the jury; they believed in us," a pale Liciardello told a media throng as he stood beside his wife, also a police officer. "I just want to get on with my life."
The six members of the narcotics field unit were charged in a 26-count federal indictment with allegedly using their positions to run a criminal enterprise. The rogue cops, the feds said, robbed and beat the drug dealers they arrested out of at least $500,000 worth of cash and drugs. The money and drugs were allegedly stolen over a six-year period, between 2006 and 2012. The feds also accused the cops of falsifying police reports to cover their tracks.
It was a case with plenty of rhetorical flourishes endlessly replayed in the media. The rogue cops, the feds said, supposedly dangled a couple of drug dealers by their feet off of high balconies. They allegedly used sledgehammers to blow open doors. They allegedly beat one drug dealer, Wayne Layre, with a steel bar in the back of the head and kicked in his his teeth. They allegedly kidnapped another drug dealer and held him hostage, and they allegedly extorted other drug dealers. They allegedly stole Rolex watches, iPods, a Calvin Klein suit, even $6,000 of somebody's flood relief money.
At a press conference the day of the arrests, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey declared, "I have been a police officer for more than 40 years and this is one of the worst cases of corruption that I have ever heard."
"Words just don't describe the degree to which their acts have brought discredit," said Ramsey, who vowed to destroy the officers' badges.
"Unfortunately, a very small percentage of police officers continue to toss their oath aside and act like the very criminals they have sworn to bring to justice," said U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger.
"These acts alleged in the indictment go beyond egregious, " FBI Special Agent Edward Hanko said.
Not to be outdone, Mayor Michael Nutter described the defendants as "sick scumbags." The message to the rest of the police force, Nutter said, was, "Don't stray from the law. If you do, we will find you. You will be prosecuted and more than likely you will go to jail."
Then, after all that chest-pounding, the government finally had to show its hand. So they released nearly 100,000 pages of documents.
When the defense lawyers got through plowing through all that paperwork, to put it plainly, the government's case was an embarrassment.
The case was so shoddy that the feds indicted Officer Michael Spicer for three alleged crimes on days that he was either not at work, or in Florida on vacation.
At least three drug dealers in the government's original all-star lineup of 19 drug dealer witnesses had to be dropped from the case because they were found to have perjured themselves or were deemed unreliable. One of those drug dealers was Wayne Layre, the guy who claimed the cops beat him with a steel bar and kicked in his teeth. The feds had to drop Layre as a witness after he got busted again as part of a big heroin and meth ring.
In the original 22 "episodes" of alleged police misconduct contained in the indictment, there were 15 Philly cops who were eyewitnesses -- fellow officers and supervisors --- that the feds didn't bother to interview until three to seven months AFTER the indictment.
The feds had no audio or video evidence to support their claims of misconduct against the cops. They didn't produce one scrap of paper to prove the drug dealers had the cash that the feds claimed was stolen by the cops.
The feds, the defense said, took the drug dealers at their word. Whether it was jewelry allegedly purchased from Tiffany's, or money withdrawn from a bank, or $14,000 from a worker's comp settlement a decade ago, or some $6,000 in flood relief, the feds never produced one bank record or sales receipt to back up any of the drug dealers' claims.
All the feds had for them were the stories told by the drug dealers, stories that, in the words of a prosecutor, were "shockingly similar" the stories told by Officer Jeffrey Walker to the FBI.
In the end, this jury apparently wanted more than stories, they wanted facts that could be corroborated.
And the government didn't have any.
The evidence in the case that couldn't be refuted included audio and video from two undercover FBI sting operations.
In the first sting operation, Officer Walker, the government's star witness, got caught red handed walking out of a drug dealer's house with $15,000 in cash and five pounds of marijuana.
In the second sting operation, an FBI agent posing as a drug dealer drove around with more than $8,600 in cash. The feds were hoping the defendants would bust the guy and help themselves. Instead, the cops turned over every dollar and reported all of it on property receipts.
With so many holes in the case, it was no wonder that the jury couldn't find the defendants guilty of one charge.
"Thank God for the jury system," said Jimmy Binns, the lawyer who defended former Officer Spicer, as he walked out of the courtroom.
"I'm gonna take my son home," said Tommy Liciardello's mother, as she hugged other defendants.
Michael Diamonstein, the lawyer who defended Officer John Speiser, said the case should serve as a "stark reminder" to the city's top cop and other public officials who pre-judged the case without knowing anything other than the government's allegations.
Diamonstein and other defense lawyers pointedly said that Police Commissioner Ramsey owed the defendants an apology.
"He didn't even know the facts," Jack McMahon, the lawyer who defended Officer Brian Reynolds, said about the police commissioner.
"They didn't investigate," McMahon, a former prosecutor, said about the feds. "They didn't do their job."
"Embarrassing" and "shocking" was how McMahon described the government's investigation, or lack thereof.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Wzorek, told reporters, "We knew from the beginning of this case this was going to be a very difficult case to bring, a case that had to be brought, and we don't regret that decision."
His boss, U.S. Attorney Memeger, said in a prepared statement that he was "disappointed" but respectful of the jury's decision.
"We stand by our case and we will not be deterred from prosecuting cases like this," Memeger said.
So the U.S. Attorney's official position is they're still right. They didn't offer any explanation for the glaring holes in their case.
Out on Market Street, Michael Spicer was walking around with a big smile. Spicer the former milkman turned cop was the only one of six defendants to take the stand. And he killed it.
"That was the easy part," Spicer said. It's easy to tell your story "if you're telling the truth."
It wasn't so easy, Spicer said, to watch his family suffer through his long legal ordeal.
Tracey Duckett, the fiancee of Officer Linwood Norman, said the couple was planning to get married last October. Before Norman got arrested at 5 a.m. on July 30 by FBI officers brandishing automatic weapons.
"They put a gun to my lady's head and to my kids' heads," Norman recalled.
There were so many lies told from the witness stand during the case, Duckett said. Jeffrey Walker, for example, told the jury that he and Norman were good buddies who used to hang out at the Post Office Bar.
She and Norman have been together for six years, she said. Jeffrey Walker has never been to their house; Jeffrey Walker doesn't even know her name.
Linwood Norman, she said, doesn't drink.
Norman's house, Duckett said, is filled with medals, commendations and trophies for bravery and outstanding police work.
One of those awards was for saving the life of a fellow officer -- Jeffrey Walker. It's still sitting there on the mantle.
They put the cuffs on me, Norman said of the feds, as he was leaving the courthouse.
Now that the case is over, Norman said, maybe somebody should put the cuffs on them.
Ralph Cipriano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.