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  February 9, 2018

Jury Deliberates in the Gun Trace Task Force Trial

Closing arguments in the case are a battle of PowerPoints and rhetoric. Meanwhile, the new Baltimore Police Commissioner struggles to get ahead of a massive scandal

By Brandon Soderberg & Baynard Woods

 

During closing arguments in the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) trial, the government's PowerPoint was the best. Even Daniel Hersl's attorney, William Purpura, admitted that much.

“That PowerPoint was a thing of beauty,” the acrid attorney quipped, commenting on the photo-filled, graphic design-y presentation from federal prosecutor Derek Hines.

In contrast, there was Purpura's own slideshow: simple white text on a blue background, mostly in all caps and often times mixing up witnesses’ names. It reflected the shoot-from-the-hip approach of Purpura (who looks like a grizzled Michel Foucault and sounds like Donald Trump) versus the somber, cerebral approach of Hines and fellow prosecutor Leo Wise (who look like a minimal techno duo about to get a New York Times profile).


This is how the GTTF trial of Hersl and Marcus Taylor wound down, with seedy details and potentially police department-destroying revelations giving way to dueling PowerPoint presentations, starkly different emotional appeals, and an arcane unpacking of conspiracy, robbery, and fraud charges.

“No man is above the law and no man is beneath it,” Hines declared, countering the defense's persistence in presenting the trial's witnesses as essentially beneath the law and therefore not to be trusted and not beholden to the fourth amendment.


During the trial, the defense's approach veered into the kind of profiling and disregard for Baltimoreans the GTTF regularly displayed. At times, it seemed to backfire, especially when one victim, Ronald Hamilton, exploded in the courtroom: “THIS RIGHT HERE DESTROYED MY WHOLE FUCKING FAMILY MAN. . . . THEY CAME IN MY HOUSE AND DESTROYED MY FAMILY.”

Hines briefly ran through the experiences of some of the alleged GTTF victims, characterizing them as targets even though the GTTF assumed they would not be believed.

Shawn Whiting, who said he had 4.5 kilograms of cocaine and $23,970 on him even though police reported only 3 kilograms and $7,650.

Jimmie Griffin, who said he had in total $12,000 on him even though police reported only $4,903 (Griffin is the only one of these victims who consented to being searched).

Herbert Tate, who said he had $530 on him even though police reported only $216, and who claimed that blue and white caps of heroin found down the street were not his, though Hersl said they were (Tate's case was dismissed).

Antonio Santiful, who said he had $700 on him even though police reported $218.

Oreese Stevenson, who said he had 10 kilograms of cocaine and $300,000 on him even though police reported only 8 kilograms and $100,000 (Sgt. Wayne Jenkins wanted to rob Stevenson a second time and discussed it over Twisted Tea with Hersl).

Ronald Hamilton, who said he had $70,000 in his home and $3,000 on his person even though police reported $23,000 (Hamilton wasn't charged with any crimes).

Dennis Armstrong, who said he had 2 kilograms of cocaine and $8,000 on him, while police reported only about 2 grams and $2,833.

Sergio Summerville, who said he had $4,800 on him even though police reported only $2800. He wasn't charged with any crimes.

As for the absurd amounts of false overtime from which Hersl made an additional $86,000 in 2015 and $37,000 in 2016, and Taylor an additional $43,000 in 2015 and $44,000 in 2016?

“They were not working hard to rid the city of guns, they were hardly working,” Hines said.

“This is all about the evidence,” Hersl's lawyer Purpura told the jury, “DANNY HERSL” in all caps real big behind him on his PowerPoint. Purpura offered a fairly artful unspooling of the specifics of the government's case against Hersl, claiming his client's involvement was not that deep, while admitting fully to theft (but not robbery understood as theft by force) and overtime fraud.

“Fraud is rampant among aggressive police squads” in Baltimore, Purpura said, adding that higher-ups “acknowledged [it] with a wink and a nod.”

Purpura dismissed the testimony of the GTTF's victims—all given immunity, some subpoenaed—as “classic cooperators’ testimony you just can't believe,” and returned to his main argument: What Hersl did was theft rather than robbery—he wrongly kept money he was rightfully allowed to seize as a police officer from drug dealers.

“After 17 years as a street cop, his conduct was wrong,” Purpura admitted.

While Purpura leveled with the jury about Hersl, Taylor's attorney, Jennifer Wicks, declared Taylor entirely innocent.

It was a lengthy closing argument with a PowerPoint presentation full of clip art and a messy defense of Taylor that reminded jurors of some of the former detective's lowest moments. Namely, Taylor had a BB gun in his car—GTTF Sgt. Wayne Jenkins told task force members to keep a BB gun on them in case they shot someone and needed an excuse—though Wicks said that Taylor had taken it off a small child who he didn't want to get hurt, and that he wasn't even present at an oft-discussed Aug. 8, 2016 raid of a storage facility.


Wicks took the scenic route toward insulting the GTTF victims who testified: a stock image of bags at the airport with the slide titled “Witnesses and their Baggage.”

“They have suitcases of reasons why they are biased,” Wicks said of the witnesses.

Then she indulged an extended scenario in which she asked the jury to imagine they were boarding a plane where many of the government's witnesses were in charge of getting the jury on board (Rayam is your travel agent, Whiting handles your luggage, the pilot is Stevenson, GTTF's Evodio Hendrix is the copilot, and so on).


The point seemed to be that if you wouldn't trust these people to get you into the air safely, you couldn't trust their testimony. But it mostly offered up another way to consider conspiracy—of which Hersl and Taylor are charged—and made the claim that Taylor was around all of these people and entirely unaware seem outrageous.

Briefly, a slide with the poster from the classic spoof “Airplane!” flashed by, as if Wicks realized it was too much and briskly double-clicked right past it.

For most of the closing argument, Taylor's other attorney, Christopher Nieto—who was the cruelest in grilling witnesses, resulting in Hamilton's blow-up—had his head down and looked as though he was going to melt into his seat.

In rebuttal, the government's Leo Wise picked apart Wicks' closing argument—this time without a spiffy PowerPoint, just a few documents and a Hollywood courtroom drama sort of sincerity.


Wise characterized the defense as full of “flip flops” who said the witnesses “were all liars—except when they say something [the defense] liked,” and characterized the defense's argument as, once more, borderline dog-whistle racism.

“Those people don’t deserve to be believed,” Wise said, paraphrasing Purpura, Nieto, and Wicks.


He argued that providing immunity is what made them reliable witnesses and that without it they would have no motivation to tell the truth. Oh, and by the way, if Taylor had a BB gun in his police vehicle because he confiscated it from a child, then why didn't he turn it in? And Taylor wasn't present at that Aug. 8 raid only because “he was in the Dominican Republic committing time and attendance fraud.”

Wise dismissed Purpura's differentiation between Gondo and Rayam's home invasions and the GTTF raid on Hamilton's house, reminding jurors that the GTTF entered ahead of the Maryland State Police to search and take money, that they had no warrant, and that Hamilton was not charged with a crime. Then he mentioned Mrs. Hamilton, who was shopping for blinds at Home Depot when the GTTF grabbed her and her husband, took them to “The Barn” (an off-site police facility), and then finally to their homes—never charging her, never telling her what was going on.

“What crime did she commit?” Wise asked.

The rebuttal ended with the audio of the car accident the GTTF caused and then observed from afar, never rendering aid. The jury again heard Taylor saying of the man in the crash “That dude is unconscious. He ain’t saying shit,” while Hersl, in his broad Bawl-da-moore accent, chuckled about changing their overtime sheets so it didn't look like they were there at all.

The jury spent the rest of Thursday deliberating and will likely return a verdict at some point on Monday.


“The jurors have a difficult job to do to weed through substantial evidence here,” said University of Maryland law professor Doug Colbert outside the courthouse.


Meanwhile, the trial itself offered further proof that the Baltimore Police Department is profoundly broke: A dozen other current or former officers were also implicated during testimony (Sherrod Biggers, Ian Dombrowski, Tariq Edwards, Jason Giordano, Ryan Guinn, Kenneth Ivery, Dean Palmere, Sean Suiter—who was killed in November—Thomas Wilson, and Michael Woodlon), overtime fraud is rampant, and the FBI's investigation of BPD is ongoing.


“The charges here are so serious. This is one of the most important and serious trials that we’ve had in Baltimore,” Colbert said. “My hope is this is the linchpin to undertaking an investigation, some type of commission that will be able to restore trust in the Baltimore Police Department and identify the extent of the corruption and criminality.”

At a press conference on Friday—his first since he got the job—Darryl DeSousa, who along with the mayor has seemed to be snoozing through the whole thing, floated the possibility of some kind of outside commission looking into the GTTF and said that officers in special units such as the GTTF will now get random polygraph tests and that overtime fraud is going to be investigated. He also said that Thomas Casella, announced on Thursday as the new deputy commissioner, would be for the moment, reconsidered.


This came after Fox45 released a leaked memo dated Jan. 26 that was sent to DeSousa that ran through Casella's internal affairs files and includes three incidents related to misconduct, neglect of duty, and racial discrimination, which have been “sustained” (found to be legitimate).

For those following the GTTF trial closely however, the appointment of Casella, who ran security at the Horseshoe Casino, raised eyebrows long before the leak.

On Tuesday, Feb. 6 at the trial, Special Agent Erika Jensen testified that the FBI did not pull records for Hersl from Horseshoe because they were worried that doing so would lead to someone at the casino tipping BPD off about the investigation.



Illustration by Tom Chalkley

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