By Baynard Woods
Even after the many police corruption revelations during the Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) trial of Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor in federal court, public defender Deborah Katz Levi dropped another bombshell during a motions hearing last week: that there are allegations the cops were using drugs while making arrests in July 2016.
“What were they doing at the time they made this arrest?” Levi asked at hearing for Charles Smith, a man charged with attempted murder. “There is some allegation they were using. I’d like to ask them about their ability to perceive. This entire prosecution stems from their perception.”
This is the first time the members have been accused of using drugs while on the job. During Hersl and Taylor’s trial, former detectives Marcus Ward, Jemell Rayam, and Momodu Gondo all testified that members of the task force stole and sold drugs. And Bail bondsman Donald Stepp testified that Jenkins had supplied him with millions of dollars in drugs—including trash bags of prescription pills stolen from pharmacies during the unrest following the funeral of Freddie Gray.
Levi could not be more specific about the allegations, but seemed confident they would be addressed in the trial of her client, Smith, when the case goes to trial on March 18. Levi, who is overseeing the Office of the Public Defender’s efforts to address all of the cases tainted by the corrupt GTTF—potentially numbering in the thousands—argued that she should be allowed to call Jenkins, Evodio Hendrix, Taylor, and Ward of GTTF to testify in Smith’s trial.
The events resulting in the attempted murder case against Smith occurred on July 21, 2016, when Hendrix, Taylor, and Jenkins heard gunshots as they patrolled Bentalou St. According to the statement of probable cause written by Hendrix, he saw a man who had been shot run into the middle of the street and fall to the ground. According to Levi, Jenkins yelled out onto the radio: “There is blood everywhere.”
Hendrix wrote that he saw Smith fleeing from the scene with a gun and that he witnessed Smith drop the gun and take off his shirt and his hat. As Smith tried to climb a fence, Hendrix grabbed him and Taylor and Hendrix arrested him. Levi argued that it was important to talk to the former officers in order to assess whether Smith’s statement—in which he admitted to picking up the gun and running with it but not to the shooting—was voluntary.
After Hendrix and Taylor were indicted in March 2017, BPD created a new statement of charges in the Smith case that does not mention them by name and just mentions “Baltimore Police detectives” making the initial observation of the defendant running. It later refers to Taylor and Hendrix as witnesses “who will remain anonymous at this time.”
In court, Assistant State’s Attorney Natalie Hynum argued that it wasn’t necessary to use the testimony of the officers, since there were other witnesses, video, and a statement from the defendant. But Levi argued it was crucial to hear from the cops about those moments before any other officers arrived on the scene.
“What happened in those first minutes when they were there by themselves?” Levi asked.
Judge Marcus Shar ruled first that Hendrix and Taylor could be brought in for a hearing to see if they actually had a legitimate reason to stop Smith, but he still wasn’t sure about bringing them before the jury.
“If they didn’t have this background, would you be calling them as witnesses,” Judge Marcus Shar asked Levi.
“If they didn’t have these backgrounds, the state would be calling them,” Levi responded.
The judge ultimately agreed with Levi, ruling that she could call them as witnesses. And in yet another example of how this case has flipped the familiar courtroom roles, Hynum argued that the defense should be responsible for buying civilian clothes for the former officers, so that their appearance in prison attire does not prejudice the jury. When witnesses who are in prison testify in court, they regularly appear in prison garb.
Judge Shar also ruled that Levi would have access to the former officers’ Internal Affairs files, as well as those of other officers involved in the case. There has been some dispute about whether the police department or the State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) is responsible for delivering such material to the defense when there is a court order. A number of lawyers such as Joshua Insley, Natalie Finegar, Ivan Bates (who is running for state’s attorney), and Tony Garcia have claimed in recent press conferences that the SAO has known about the GTTF officers corruption for years and has done nothing. Instead of going through the SAO, which still has an obligation to deliver any information that may be beneficial to the defendant, Levi will work directly with the police department to review the files.
If the SAO is perceived as lax in its attention to the effects of the GTTF’s crimes on the foundation of criminal cases, Levi may be seen as obsessed.
“The only thought I have racing through my mind every day all day is: where does it stop, how many officers, how many people’s convictions are called into question by these officers’ brazen and really egregious and horrible criminal conduct,” she said in front of the federal courthouse during a break in Hersl and Taylor’s criminal trial, which ended with both GTTF members being found guilty on most charges.