411 On Baltimore City PD Corruption, Racism, Witness Coercion And Coaching

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How could Adnan Syed be found guilty of murder, and be sentenced to life plus thirty, if he really had nothing to do with the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Lee? If he really is totally innocent?

Makes no sense right?

It certainly makes no sense if you have any faith in the American justice system—if you believe witnesses who testify in court abide by that whole “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" thing.

And, it certainly makes no sense at all if you believe that the police are dedicated to uncovering the truth, serving their community, putting away the "bad guys," and ensuring true justice for victims.

Now, chances are, if you are an educated, employed, white person, who lives in a state with an honest and seemingly incorruptible police force that is held accountable for their actions—you abide by the laws of the land, and, if you do break any of those laws, you have the financial means to pay for a top flight lawyer to defend you in court—then, that's going to be your experience in life.

But, if you don't meet all those criteria, there's a high chance that you may have a decidedly lower level of faith in the justice system—and, you may then be able to understand how a completely innocent person can be put away for life—or, even worse, be sentenced to death, for a crime they did not commit.

As Popdust previously reported, Syed has spent the past 15 years behind bars, after being found guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend back in 1999—the 34-year-old vehemently maintains his innocence.

The case garnered national attention last year after NPR reporter, and This American Life producer, Sarah Koenig, covered it in great depth, on Serial, her weekly podcast series.

However, after twelve gripping episodes, listeners were left no clearer as to Syed's innocence or guilt.

Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who first alerted Koenig to the case, along with fellow attorneys, Susan Simpson and Colin Miller, are giving their all in an attempt to remedy that—working tirelessly to tear apart the State's case against Syed—and they are broadcasting their findings every two weeks on their podcast series, Undisclosed: The State Vs Adnan Syed.

During the first four episodes of Undisclosed, the team dissected the State's version of what occurred on January 13, 1999, the day Hae was murdered—pulling to pieces many of the witness statements, and turning up two shocking new accounts of what allegedly went down that day.

They shredded vital, key pieces of the prosecution's case against Syed; presented the revelation that Hae kept a second diary, which, if found, could possibly hold the key to Adnan proving his innocence; and presented a solid case that Baltimore PD may have coached their star witness, Jay Wilds, and even perhaps coerced him into giving false testimony.

However, many people following the case are still unable to entertain the idea that Syed was not involved in the murder in some way, shape or form.

Even if he didn't actually murder Hae, he had to have played a part—right?

Otherwise, why would two witnesses stand up in court and testify, in great detail, about him strangling her to death?

How would one of those witnesses know where Hae's car was, if Syed hadn't told them?

How would that witness know where Hae's body was dumped, if Syed hadn't “scared" them into helping him bury her?

What about the State's damning timeline, seemingly matching Syed's cell phone records from that day to the supposed scene of the crime?

What about all those Baltimore Police Department interviews with witnesses, backing up the State's argument of what went down?

Let's face it—how could he NOT have been involved? How could the whole case against Syed been fabricated?

WHY would the case have been fabricated?

Well, perhaps if you aren't one of those white, employed, affluent folks living in a state with an incorruptible and accountable police force—or, you work in the justice system with folks who aren't—you'd understand that quandary only too well.

Popdust spoke with Deputy District Public Defender, Edie Cimino, who worked in the Baltimore City Public Defender's office for 11 years and was a felony trial lawyer for 7.

She offers up some shocking insight into the Baltimore “justice" system.

Why would witnesses lie?

Here's the deal.... the police in Baltimore City, when they're investigating crimes, the witnesses they're talking to typically, and the people they are talking to typically, they're somehow ensnared in the criminal justice system...and many times they have something to be gained by currying favor with law enforcement. So, when they pull people in to interview them, it's not like a tax payer, who, you know, has nothing to fear....and, is coming to them, because, you know, it's their duty as a citizen to report a crime.....and tell them what they, you know, to answer your question, I think that often times, the police, when they're investigating, they're interviewing witnesses, they have this really undue influence and they exert incredible power and pressure on the people that they're talking to. So, I think this creates an environment where, the statements that they get, that they extract from people sometimes, are not necessarily reliable. And, a lot of times, people make agreements that are written, that are a wink and a nod, that, if they testify a certain way, you know, they make a certain type of statement, that, good things will happen to them. And the other thing is that, different times—and I've seen this play out a number of different times—people, and I think this is probably not uncommon, not just unique to Baltimore... but I know that in Baltimore City this happens a lot—people will use the criminal justice system as a way to seek vengeance against other people. So, if you want to get back at somebody, or you have somebody you want punished... you can just say they did something that they didn't do, and set the wheels in motion right? So, I've had that happen. One of my clients that comes to mind, was charged with attempted murder, and neutral eye witnesses described the person who shot at the alleged victim as someone who had dreadlocks, and as someone who is tall in stature, and thin.... and my client was very short, with very short hair and a very visible tattoo on his face... and that was not described. Oh, and my client had a solid alibi... a very solid alibi... but, the person who was the alleged victim, came to the police and said, 'oh yeah, [Edie's client] did it, gave his name, all this information and my client gets charged, and held without bond for a very lengthy period of time, pre trial, before finally I brought his alibi witnesses into the State's Attorney's office to talk to her—which is really unconventional, I would usually never do that, but she talked to them and decided they were truthful and that she wasn't going to prosecute my client, and she dismissed the case.

Why do cops coerce witnesses?

I think that what passes for—how should I say it—I think the police department, unfortunately, is under a lot of pressure to make arrests, and they're under a lot of pressure to close cases, and, their cases become closed the moment they charge someone—whereas, the State's Attorney's office, they can't really call their work done until a sentence is handed down.
But, the cops are done once they charge someone—and either a commissioner, or a State Attorney, or, what have you, rushes their charges and says there's probable cause, what have you, and they can go ahead and arrest someone, then they're done with their job. So, I think, a lot of the time, the pressure they are under.... they do succumb to it... and so, I don't know if that can be blamed entirely, or, other motives that might develop over the course of their career... but, I do think a lot of the time, they do play fast with ethics and with, you know, not tampering with evidence.
There's a lot of evidence that shows, the way that identifications have been conducted over the years, with the photo array, with the person presenting the photo array to the witness knowing who the target is—included in a recent report that the DOJ issued was that Maryland has to have laws in place where everyone in law enforcement has to adopt policies that are consistent with the DOJ recommendations—which include, you can not have the person presenting the array know who the target is...they should do double blind presentations.

Is witness coercion a common occurrence in Baltimore?

Sometimes I think the police coerce confessions, sometimes I think the police coerce witness statements, sometime I think the police coerce identifications of unsuspecting people—in other words, I think they give potential witnesses a hint or a clue to who they think the suspect is, and then, a witness that's not quite sure can be pushed in to a certain direction….
There was a case where a detective brought in a witness to look at a photo array, and the witness said, “No, he doesn't look like that, he has less hair…" so then the detective took the photo array back, took the picture of the target, the person that they thought committed the crime, and the detective took some scissors and cut off some of the hair from the target's photo and then put the picture back in the photo array, and presented it again to the witness for identification. And that detective is still employed by the Baltimore PD, and, he's still working cases.

Do cops get reprimanded if it's found they have acted unethically, or even criminally?

The funny thing is, it was [another detective] who outed [the photo tampering one], and he gave testimony that that had happened in circuit court during a motion hearing, and [that other detective] was transferred—and I don't know if it was a direct result of his testimony, or what, but, the detective that [he] testified against was never reprimanded, to my knowledge.
There's a cop in Baltimore City who is still employed by the force, there's two of them that I know of, that are employed, and still making arrests, that were accused of stealing $11,000 from the trunk of someone's car. They failed lie detector tests regarding the incident...and, they're still employed, and the State's Attorney's Office chose not to prosecute them for the theft.

What's your view on the integrity of the Baltimore P.D.? Why is there so much corruption?

The integrity issues of the Baltimore City Police Department are out of control. And, you know, I don't know which is worse—that the integrity issues occur, that the crimes really happen, or whether, it's worse that that happens in of itself, or, that the police themselves are not subject to the criminal process.
Because, if you're a police officer, and you're working, and you steal money from somebody, or you beat the heck out of somebody, or, you lie on a report, and you commit perjury, you're not going to get arrested and charged—you're going to go in front of the Internal Investigations Division—and, you know, the worst I've ever seen was somebody get docked a couple of days vacation….
Of course, that's just in my personal experience—media reports of course show that there have been firings and things, but, in my personal experience, in my practice, when I've seen transgressions on the witnesses in my cases, you don't really learn about them being punished, you learn about the State's Attorney's Office not deciding to charge them..
And then, the other thing is that, not only do they escape the criminal process, but, the things they do that are unethical, that are clearly impeachment evidence for any defense attorney to use in trial, are not always disclosed to us...and we have to fight tooth and nail to get those things disclosed to us.
Now, that would really put a chilling effect on their crimes, if their crimes would be subject to cross examination in the trials in which they do work, they make arrests, they do investigations.
So, I think the heart of it, is that they don't really face any repercussions, they don't face criminal penalties, and their careers don't suffer because of their lies and crimes.

How much of the corruption is racially motivated?

I feel like, whenever, look...the fact that a well dressed, white defendant does better in court—I mean, does better in court AND does better on the street level, with apprehension and investigation, and the rush to charge—I think that probably, that's just reality. I think the judges try really hard not to be biased, but I think unconsciously those things occur, because.. look, it's like this... if you've got a great job, and you have a lot of family support then you just have a lot of, when you arrive in court, you have a lot of things to say, and it just so happens that African Americans, because of years of oppression and the badges and incidents of slavery, are lower economically situated. So, on street level encounters, I think that when you're not white, and you don't have the appearance of economic stability, you're going to get a harder, you're not going to get a fair shake.
I think the racism is really on a street level though. So, when the police are doing their job, and they see a white person, if that white person looks like, you know, someone who's not a criminal out to use—meaning, they don't have neck tattoos, grubby shirts with concert names on them..... you know what I'm saying.... if they don't look like someone that's out and about looking to cop drugs, and they're white... then, they're not going to get bothered. But, if you're black—even if you're well dressed—you're a potential target. You're definitely going to have an increased risk of police encounter if you're black on the street.
Now, when it comes to the time of the adjudication of your case, and you're in court....I have to say, I don't think that race, necessarily plays a part. And, I'll tell you, I think it's because the judges are very sensitive to unequal treatment and that if you see a white face in court, you're careful not to give special treatment as a jurist.

Why do innocent people plead guilty to crimes they didn't commit? Is race an issue?

Because African Americans face this economic hardship, and the over-policing of their neighborhoods, generally speaking they don't have as good bail outcomes, and so, they're more likely to be incarcerated when it comes to court—and if you're incarcerated when you come to court, there's a lot of evidence that your trial outcome is going to be worse. And, you're more likely to plead guilty, when you didn't do it…when you're innocent. Because, you're incarcerated, and often times, you're going to get a deal that gets you out.... that gets you home....if you take a guilty plea.
And, the speedy trial problem is insane in Baltimore. When I worked there, I told my clients that if they were on trial, in a felony case, that they can expect to wait in jail for, well, the low end of the average wait time would be a year.
So, you say to your client, 'OK, you want a trial, I see how viable your defense is…and I will pursue it in trial, but, you need to know that if you want that, you're going to sit and wait... and the State Attorney's offering, or the judge is offering, right now, a suspended sentence. So, you can plead guilty, to something you didn't do, put this felony conviction on your record, and get out of jail...go home... go back to your job...go back to your life... be able to pay rent, and be with your loved ones and your children.'
That's the choice they have to make. So, it's no wonder that people who are locked up, take deals for stuff they didn't do, then they get these astronomical criminal records. It's the civil rights issue of our time I think.

The State argued that Adnan Syed's motive for killing his ex-girlfriend was “honor killing"—yet, at the time, he wasn't a devout Muslim… he dated non-Muslims, he smoked weed, he was known to drink alcohol on occasion, and he attended mosque only on holidays….so, do you think there was a racial element to his conviction?

I think it's more cultural sensitivity, or cultural bias rather than racism...I've had a Muslim client who, you know, he was a kid, he was a child, he was 16, or 17, and he was charged as an adult. I mean, yeah, that just felt like I was climbing up hill, and I was trying to push this giant rock up this hill, and that judge wasn't really listening to anything I was saying, he wasn't very friendly to our arguments, and I can't help but think that some of that had to do with the cultural bias, and that was, like, you know, 2013.
But then again, I often feel like the judges are not really patient, and listening, so I don't really know. My personal feeling, in that case, is that it was motivated, at least in part, by xenophobia, but, you know, I couldn't point to any comment that was made, no smoking gun, or anything like that.

If defense can prove on appeal that cops coerced, and or, coached witnesses, would that mean the conviction would be overturned?

The legal standard for appeal is whether there were mistakes made at the trial court level that had an affect on the verdict. And, in order to lose an appeal, the State would have to prove that the mistakes did not have an affect beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, that's appeal... when there are deadlines for appeals to be heard, and they're denied, and when you're done with all that... then.... you're basically left with different sorts of remedies that are in the interests of justice and there are other standards... such as, is it enough?
I think, generally speaking, you can boil it down to, it's enough if the judge feels the impropriety affected the verdict. If the Judge feels it didn't, like, they think, 'OK, the cop lied about the time of sunset that day, or what he was wearing, or what he eats for breakfast,' well, that doesn't necessarily matter—but, if the cops coerced a witness statement that was instrumental in getting a conviction, then that defendant should get relief or a new trial. But, that's kind of outside the field of what I do, because I'm on the trial court level, and there are lawyers whose practice is dedicated solely to post conviction, and helping people who are well past the normal pipeline of the process.


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