Last month at a U.S. District Court in Maryland, a judge stepped down from his bench to shake the hands of two defendants and tell them he was sorry. The two defendants had, at different times, pleaded guilty to drug charges years ago in that same judge’s court. The convictions had just been vacated by the judge. One of the men, Umar Burley, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and heroin possession. He had spent seven years of his 15-year sentence when he was released. The other man pleaded guilty to drug charges and had served four years when he was released. So why did the judge shake these men’s’ hands and apologize? Because they were both innocent.
Last spring, Baltimore prosecutors charged at least eight officers, who were members of a special police task force, with gross misconduct, including planting drugs on innocent people. These officers were as crooked as it gets. Suspiciously, the Baltimore detective who was investigating this rouge police squad was fatally shot a day before he was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury.
The two recently released men are expected to be only the first of many who will be released. The district judge stated this is not over yet. Baltimore prosecutors estimate that there are at least 2,000 cases that involve arrests by this crooked task force.
The case involving Umar Burley is particularly tragic. It is reported that one of the corrupt officers rammed Mr. Burley’s car from behind and the came out of his unmarked car donned in all black and wearing a face mask. With his gun drawn, he approached Mr. Burley, who was still sitting in his car, with his gun drawn. Mr. Burley, believing he was being robbed sped away causing him to hit another vehicle, which ended in the death of a man in the other vehicle. According to the prosecutor, upon contacting Mr. Burley in his car following the accident, another one of the officers planted heroin in Mr. Burley’s car. After seven years in prison for a crime he did not commit and living with the emotional pain of causing someone’s death, Mr. Burley said he appreciated the judge’s apology but his life will never be the same. That much is clear and I, for one, think there is a case to be made against the officer for manslaughter.
You might wonder why these two innocent men pleaded guilty to crimes they know they did not commit. I can’t speak for them but I can tell you that the prosecution will do everything in their power to intimidate a defendant into making a plea. Indeed, approximately 95% of all California state criminal cases end with a plea bargain rather than a trial. In the Baltimore case, these defendants were up against police evidence—no matter how much they insisted the drugs were planted, a jury is going to believe a cop’s testimony almost every time. This is truly egregious and a tragedy, not only for the defendants, but for our justice system.
Most police officers are honest and trying to do the best they can, but some of them are criminals, plain and simple. And even if plea bargains are often an efficient use of judicial time and can benefit the defendant, sometimes a trial is a better option. While the Baltimore cases are hopefully outliers and these defendants probably would have been convicted by a jury anyway and received even greater sentences because the cops would have given false testimony, we still must pay heed to what has happened in Baltimore. There are over 2,000 individuals who have been convicted in Baltimore after being arrested by this rogue task force; many of them may be innocent. In our rush to judgment and our tendency to assume a defendant is guilty or that a police officer is always telling the truth, we do a disservice to our system of justice.
Criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has been serving the Orange County community for almost 25 years. He offers a complimentary consultation regarding any criminal matter. You may contact him at 949-474-8008 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.