In the era of Mike Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City, public opinion surrounding America’s police forces has arguably dropped to an all-time low. This is especially true of departments operating in major cities like Philadelphia, where officers are frequently implicated in allegations of corruption and excessive force. Now the Philadelphia Police Department’s history of legal misconduct has begun casting serious doubt on the credibility of officers’ testimony in criminal trials — many of which have led to convictions. Philadelphia police brutality lawyer Larry Krasner comments on this developing legal situation.
Thanks to TV shows and action movies, just about everyone knows the following line by heart: “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
While this question has become a pop culture cliche, the realities of lying under oath during trial are anything but Hollywood. Perjury is a felony, and the penalties can be incredibly severe — not only for the people who commit perjury, but also for the hapless defendants who are convicted and sentenced based on questionable testimony.
This is the issue at the heart of the Philadelphia Police Department’s latest scandal.
In July of 2014, six officers from a narcotics unit operating within the PPD were arrested. A federal indictment charged the officers with robbing and viciously beating suspected drug dealers, alleging that together, Officers Perry Betts, Thomas Liciardello, Michael Spicer, Brian Reynolds, Linwood Norman and John Speiser collectively stole more than $500,000 in combined property, cash, and narcotics, spread across 22 separate incidents. These incidents involved officers reportedly breaking victims’ teeth, bashing them in the head with steel bars, and kicking them in the face.
In one particularly disturbing case, officers allegedly dangled a beaten victim over an 18th floor balcony to get the victim’s Palm Pilot password. After obtaining the password, the officers stole personal items valued at approximately $8,000.
Even though nearly a year has passed, the repercussions of the arrests are still reverberating through Philadelphia’s criminal justice system.
“Police corruption,” says public defender Brad Bridge, “has a corrosive effect on the entire judicial system. The judicial system cannot stand behind convictions called into question by tainted police officers.”
It certainly cannot, which is why the Defender Association of Philadelphia has filed almost 1,500 petitions to revisit old convictions based upon potentially flawed police testimony. So far, only 65 convictions have been successfully reopened for fresh examination; but another 165 have already been vacated. The District Attorney’s office has also tossed out approximately 300 cases tied to the arrested officers. While the six arrests at the heart of the legal turmoil were made in mid-2014, First Assistant District Attorney Ed McCann reports that the DA’s office began the process of tossing cases as early as December of 2012.
It’s a step in the right direction; but Philadelphia criminal defense attorney Larry Krasner of Krasner & Long thinks it may be a case of too little, too late. Mr. Krasner believes Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams is “late to the game” when it comes to cracking down on perjury in the PPD, saying that other federal prosecutors had already begun taking steps to eliminate faulty police testimony years earlier.
First Assistant DA McCann acknowledges that the DA’s office is still figuring out the nuts and bolts of how to deal with questionable police testimony and the associated convictions. “We understand that it needs to be more formalized and structured,” says McCann, “and that we should have a formal policy. And that’s something that we’re working on.”
“The general public [might] do what should have been done a long time ago,” says attorney Krasner, “which is to treat the police, as the jury instructions say, essentially like any other witness.”
If you or someone you love was victimized by the Philadelphia Police Department, or if you think your legal rights were violated by an officer, you deserve to have the matter investigated by an experienced lawyer. To set up a free and completely confidential legal consultation, call the police brutality attorneys of Krasner & Long at (215) 882-9752 today.