Monday, March 27, 2006

BALTIMORE (AP) — Saying the ruling “gutted” her case, a prosecutor has dropped charges against three accused drug dealers after a Baltimore Circuit Court judge decided that jurors could hear that dozens of complaints had been filed against two police officers involved in the case.

Assistant State’s Attorney Mia Beth Segall said she had no choice but to drop the case because the ruling essentially would have put the officers on trial.

Gary Payne, 43, Harold Richardson, 36, and Kenneth Richard, 37, each had faced six drug distribution and possession charges that could have put them in prison for up to 10 years without parole.

After two days of hearings last week, Baltimore Circuit Judge John Prevas ruled that defense attorneys could tell jurors that investigating Officers Daniel Hersl and Frank Nellis had 46 internal affairs complaints filed between them.

While only one complaint for each had been sustained by the department, Judge Prevas said the sheer number of accusations was worth noting.

“Misconduct, sometimes when it’s frequent enough, it indicates a lack of desire to tell the truth,” Judge Prevas said at one of the hearings, after reviewing Officer Hersl’s internal affairs file.

Karen Hornig, a city solicitor who is chief legal counsel for the police department, said she was surprised the case was dropped.

“Unsubstantiated complaints should not shut down the prosecution of bad guys,” Miss Hornig said. “These officers could have explained to the jury the reality of being narcotics officers and that they receive a lot of spurious complaints from drug dealers.”

The ruling is another blow to a police department dealing with several cases of misconduct.

A city grand jury report released this month said residents have come to distrust the department because officers have made thousands of arrests that don’t result in criminal charges.

Two detectives on trial in federal court are accused of robbing drug addicts and pressuring dealers to split their profits with them. And three officers have been charged with raping a woman inside a police station.

Mr. Richardson’s defense attorney, Bradley MacFee, said he was so disturbed by the volume of complaints against Officers Hersl and Nellis that he sent a letter to police Commissioner Leonard Hamm, asking him to audit his officers’ personnel files.

“Recently publicized misconduct within the department has eroded public confidence and undermined your mission,” Mr. MacFee wrote, adding that an audit of personnel files would “fortify the public trust.”

Police spokesman Matt Jablow said that agency lawyers had read the letter but that he was unsure whether Commissioner Hamm had done the same.

The sustained complaint against Officer Hersl involved an argument with a woman at a bar while he was off duty. He poured a beer on her head and threw a bottle that struck her face.

Officer Nellis’ sustained complaint was for an incident in which he and two other plainclothes officers punched a man in the face, after which one of the officers hit him in the head with a departmental radio.

Judge Prevas ruled that defense attorneys could cross-examine the officers about those complaints — in addition to mentioning how many others complaints had been filed — during the trial for Messrs. Payne, Richardson and Richard.

The city solicitor’s office could have appealed the ruling but decided against it.

Miss Hornig said the office views the ruling as “an anomaly.” Also, an unsuccessful appeal could have set a precedent allowing defense attorneys to tell jurors about other police officers’ unproven internal affairs complaints.

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