PHILADELPHIA — A sweeping police corruption case starting Monday in Philadelphia will largely rest on the credibility of about 20 drug suspects and one turncoat cop as it plays out following the wholesale dismissal of scores of cases developed by members of an elite narcotics unit now accused of pocketing cash and cocaine seized on the job.
The indictment says the six officers on trial deployed the same violent methods as those they locked up — beating people, breaking into their homes and even dangling one dealer over a high-rise balcony to get information — while seizing more than $500,000 in cash and many kilos of cocaine for themselves between 2006 and 2012.
But a lawyer for one of the victims described in the indictment noted the dilemma prosecutors face as they pursue the case.
"I believe that (my client) had a large amount of money in his possession that vanished after the narcotics crew went through his apartment. I also believe that he obtained that money in a less than legal way," lawyer Lawrence Bozzelli wrote to prosecutors before his client testified before a grand jury last year. "I leave it to you whether you want to offer him immunity or use a surgeon's skill in avoiding those areas."
The August 2014 indictment came as little surprise to shaggy-haired lead defendant Thomas Liciardello and the other undercover officers. By then, both city and federal prosecutors had stopped taking their cases, 162 convictions were being tossed out and about 100 civil rights lawsuits had been filed accusing police of brutality, theft, kidnapping and false arrests.
Former Officer Jeffrey Walker, who pleaded guilty to stealing $15,000 from a drug suspect and planting evidence in his car, is expected to spend several grueling days on the stand as lawyers for his former colleagues test his version of events. Officials concede he once stole three kilos of cocaine from a drug trafficker.
"The tragic part is, because of the police corruption, we have absolutely no idea whether the people arrested were actually drug dealers, or actually innocent people wrongly arrested and maligned, and brought into the judicial system," said public defender Bradley Bridge, who felt a sense of deja vu as he worked to get the convictions overturned.
He called the accusations "sadly reminiscent" of a 1995 case involving a rogue Philadelphia drug officer turned cooperator.
"When you put police officers out to interact with drug dealers ... corruption inevitably arises. There is too much money, too little supervision, and virtually no oversight," Bridge said.
Liciardello, denied bail, has been in solitary confinement since his arrest. The other defendants — Brian Reynolds, Perry Betts, Linwood Norman, Perry Betts, John Speiser and Michael Spicer — are on house arrest.
If pretrial hearings are any indication, the long court battle could be blistering.
The defense last week attacked the entire premise of the case, accused prosecutors of trying to "whitewash" perjured testimony when they dropped Bozzelli's client from the witness list. The defense called Bozzelli's client "an opportunistic witness" who was crafting testimony to suit his needs when he told a federal grand jury the defendants stole $3,200 from him in 2010. The same witness never mentioned that at his criminal trial or in the lawsuit he filed accusing police of brutality.
Prosecutors, in tackling the case, hope to help Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in his long campaign to clean house of the once-moribund department.
But defense lawyers say their clients' careers have been destroyed by criminals and an unfit colleague — even though they declined to take money dangled in FBI-engineered stings.
"The government," defense lawyer Michael Diamondstein argued in his unsuccessful bid to toss the case against Speiser, "ignored publicly available material in what can only be characterized as a willful blindness to the truth."
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