Sometimes a journalist can make the mistake of falling in love with a story. Even when it turns out to be not true.
That seems to be what's happened over at The Philadelphia Inquirer, in the case of the six former members of the city's Narcotics Field Unit.
After a seven-week trial a jury in May found the officers not guilty on all 47 charges of a 26-count RICO indictment that alleged conspiracy, deprivation of civil rights, robbery, extortion, carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, falsification of records, and aiding and abetting.
To recap, the jury heard all the evidence in the case and 47 times the jury foreman told the judge that the verdict was not guilty on every charge.
But at the Inquirer, the editorial board keeps on serving up sour grapes about the case, while rehashing disproven allegations and nasty quotes at the heart of a defamation lawsuit filed by the acquitted cops and one of their superior officers. The conduct of the newspaper has left lawyers for the cops scratching their heads and wondering what the hell is going on over at the city's paper of record.
"Reading that editorial, it strikes me as an inane, malevolent attack on the character and reputation of six heroic police officers who have withstood the test of a trial by a jury of their peers and found to be not guilty of anything that they were charged with," said James J. Binns, the defense lawyer for Officer Michael Spicer, one of the defendants.
"I don't understand what the purpose of that editorial would be other than malice," Binns said.
Under the headline, "Laws apply to the police too," and a picture of Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey with an apparent halo around his head, the editorial says:
Escaping conviction wasn't enough for five former Philadelphia narcotics officers who stood trial on corruption charges. Their recent defamation suit appears designed to discourage authorities from going after any cops suspected of illegal behavior.
Certainly the acquittals of the officers accused of shaking down drug dealers sends a strong message to prosecutors whose cases hinge on the testimony of felons. But that shouldn't stop them from pursuing justice, even when the defendants wear blue uniforms.
Six officers were accused of routinely beating and robbing drug suspects as members of the Narcotics Field Unit. But a federal jury acquitted five of them in May despite damning testimony not only by their alleged victims, but also a former member of the unit who made a plea deal.
Who does the fact-checking over at the Inky editorial board? Six cops were accused by the government and the jury acquitted all six defendants, not five. Apparently the jury didn't believe that "damning testimony" from the drug dealers in the case when they unanimously reached 47 not guilty verdicts. The jury also apparently didn't buy the testimony of Jeffrey Walker, the former narc who cut a plea deal to cooperate after he was caught red-handed in an FBI sting.
The Inquirer also doesn't seem to know that the sixth acquitted officer, Linwood Norman, has joined the defamation suit, as reported Friday on this blog.
Let's get back to that Inky editorial:
The witnesses accused the officers of acting like street thugs, roughing up suspects, ignoring due process, planting evidence, pocketing seized money and lying in police reports. The squad's superiors allegedly asked few questions because the unit was so productive.
In fact, the officers' complaint calls it "the most accomplished and effective narcotics unit in the history of the Philadelphia Police Department." Even if that's true, the distinction would not excuse the criminal behavior the officers were charged with.
Here, the Inquirer seems to be forgetting that the jury found the defendants not guilty of all that "criminal behavior the officers were charged with." But once again, the Inquirer can't get past those charges.
"Their editorial begins by explicitly begrudging my clients their rights to get their good names back," said Christopher D. Mannix, the lawyer who filed the defamation suit on behalf of the six acquitted officers and their former supervisor, Lt. Robert Otto.
The Inquirer editorial "implies that my clients should be content that they got their jobs back," Mannix said. "Then, it gratuitously besmirches my clients by repeating Mayor Nutter's venomous slur."
"I guess either the Inquirer was trying to prove our point -- that the officers will never escape the official slurs on their character -- or they were deliberatively propagating it," Mannix said about the newspaper.
Mannix also disagreed with the newspaper on what the "strong message" was for the prosecutors in the case who lost 47-0.
"The 'strong message' is not how difficult it is to rely on criminals for testimony," Mannix said. "It is that the government should properly investigate serious charges."